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Almost from the opening lines of Richard Maxwell’s latest offering, The End of Reality, the audience at the Graz International Autumn Festival in southern Austria seemed restless.

There were, of course, some who were unaccustomed to the American author-director’s style: the artfully stripped-down non-acting and spasmodic dialogue that is the trademark of his company, the New York City Players. But uneasy reactions to the work, which is set in the glaring, strip-lit “Lobby Citadel” of a corporate building and deals with the prosaic lives of a group of security guards, seemed more far-reaching than usual.

Discontented sighs rang round the auditorium, followed by shuffling, bursts of muttering and the occasional disgruntled soul making a dash for the nearest exit. Then, as the director and cast lined up in front of audience members for the post-show discussion, the mood of dissent erupted to the surface: “Perhaps it is necessary to be American to understand a work like this,” comments one woman. “For me, the play was reactionary.”

In the cold light of the following morning, Maxwell reflected on the experience: “ I think what she meant that there was a kind of simplistic moral theme,” he says. “The idea that things were better before 9/11 kind of thing. But I didn’t mind the charge of reactionary. I’m not afraid of nostalgia or tradition and pining for the past.”

Even so, it’s not a term usually applied to Maxwell’s work; deadpan, robotic, photo-realistic, staccato, elliptical, fragmentary, flat, repetitious, monotonic, numb and poker-faced are more frequent descriptions.

He has built an award-winning career by paring down the essentials of drama to a desiccated minimum. His plays are spectacularly offbeat tales from the fringes of American life, littered with rambling asides and pauses so painfully stretched that they would make Pinter blush.

The Obie-winning House, in 1998, told a tale of murderous domestic carnage, and in 2002 Joe was a time-lapse portrait of an alienated loser. But it is Maxwell’s automaton-like approach to directing his own works that is most distinctive. His actors blurt out their lines in clunky B-movie mode, rarely raising the pitch above a monotone.

Productions are sprinkled with knowingly formulaic, cliché-laden pop songs performed with a grating lack of vocal prowess. The result can be creepy, almost repulsive, but somehow weirdly compelling.

“Maxwell remains the king of affecting disaffection,” concluded the New York Times, proclaiming him “one of the most innovative and essential artists to emerge from American experimental theatre for a decade”.

To describe Maxwell as resembling one of his laconic characters wouldn’t quite hit the mark; the truth is that he makes some of them seem positively logorrheic. Responses to even the most direct questions meander and lose their way, almost every sentence trails off into “kind of thing . . . ”, “I guess . . . ” or evaporates into silence.

The whole idea of being an experimental firebrand seems to baffle him. “I’m not as concerned with being
original as I am with being true to myself,” he intones. “I don’t claim that this is the first time for any of this – I’m not educated enough to know that – and I don’t know that it’s even possible. So, I don’t really care whether it can be called innovative or new.”

Rather than explanations, he prefers listless assertions about what his work is resolutely not: “For me, my work is always about asking questions rather than providing answers. It’s all part of an ongoing conversation.”

The son of a federal judge, Maxwell originally aimed to become an actor and studied performance at Illinois State University, before moving on to legendary Steppenwolf theatre company, the Chicago rep outfit that had launched the careers of John Malkovich and Joan Allen.

However, his arrival coincided with their production of a Broadway play, Harvey: “I came expecting this blood-and-guts, rock’n’roll approach,” he says, “and instead they were doing a play about a giant rabbit.”

He soon broke away to form a company called the Cook County Theatre Department, putting on a deconstruction of the musical Oklahoma entitled Swing Your Lady! and Fable, one of his first original works.

In the absence of other candidates, Maxwell took on the role of director. The style he forged then seems to have been remarkably close to what we recognise today.

“In rehearsals, I was trying to strip away any predisposed inclination that a performer has,” he has said of the early productions, “not because I think their instincts or their training are invalid, but I think it’s important to clean the slate, start from zero or as close to zero as we can get.”

This urge to deracinate has been the basis of everything he has done. Until now, that is. The End of Reality is a departure for Maxwell in a number of respects. For a start, there are none of his signature faux-sentimental songs: “I was wondering myself whether these songs were habit, and I’m leery of that,” he says. But far more shockingly, The End of Reality contains distinct traces of real, red-blooded emotion.

These vaguely ardent, occasionally demonstrative passages come courtesy of the central character of Guard No 5, a troubled young woman called Marcia who harangues a captured assailant on the subject of sibling jealousy. “I have never said to an actor: ‘I don’t want you to feel this,’ ” Maxwell counters, “If an actor is moved onstage in a profound way I’m not going to police that. We are telling a story, and this story will affect us.”

Ultimately, it is the subject matter of The End of Reality that is its most disconcerting aspect. While there are undertones of America-under-siege, as the security guards come under various forms of attack, the main thrust of the play is concerned with religion and belief.

“Lord. Take a look at this place,” says Guard No 1 in a remembrance ceremony reminiscent of that of the 9/11 firefighters. “Help us find the right answer. It’s tough to know sometimes. We work hard and try to provide but it’s still tough to know. Help us to find the right path.” The final lines are inspired by Khalil Gibran’s The Prophet: “And then the earth shall take my limbs. Then I shall truly dance.”

The central question of the work, Maxwell says, is simply: “What’s wrong with faith?” The problem, however, is not with the question itself, but the way that it is framed here – in undigested chunks of mawkish religious rhetoric.

It’s not quite the territory of the American totalitarian heartlands, but it certainly opens Maxwell up to charges – highlighted in that Graz after-show talk – that he may have created a work worthy of the term reactionary.

The End of Reality has already raised eyebrows in New York: “Some of the comments were that it is really aggressive,” Maxwell says. “It is not something people expect of a downtown theatre production.”

But regardless of how it goes down at the Barbican in London, where it premieres next week, there can be no doubt that Maxwell continues to create work that is challenging, on a variety of different and uncomfortable levels.

“True exploration is going somewhere you don’t know,” he concludes. “I guess that is probably why I’ve always had a hard time with the word ‘style’. It implies a kind of finishedness, having an answer before you’ve got there. I would quit if I knew what I was trying to find.”

‘The End of Reality‘ runs from November 8-18 at the Barbican Centre, London EC1. Tel +44 20 7638 8891

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