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Leaving the Barbican Centre, I passed a lone security guard lodged behind a desk in the open air at the entrance to an underground car park. I wondered what he would have made of Richard Maxwell’s The End of Reality.

This New York writer-director’s work has tended to place centre stage members of society who don’t generally get a spell in the limelight. This time it is security personnel, those burly, uniformed individuals who are so much a part of the modern urban landscape. He depicts with sympathy his characters’ daily routine of grinding monotony punctuated by moments of physical danger.

Maxwell ups the ante by having his security force guard some unspecified but particularly sensitive site that appears to be attractive to violent intruders. For all their surveillance of CCTV footage and checking off of forms, the guards are still periodically caught unawares by aggressive pugilists. The piece then works as a metaphor both for a fearful, watchful America trying to fortify itself against aggressors and for the mistrust and violence that derive from acute urban alienation. The question of what is meant by “security” hangs in the air.

Where the play scores, however, is in the detail: in Maxwell’s keen observation of minutiae and in his merciless yet compassionate portrayal of his characters. One in particular stands out here: Brian, a thick-set combination of fear and aggression, whose idea of chatting up a woman is to tell her he has a bedroom full of baseball caps. And Brian Mendes, playing him in the New York City Players’ production, carries off Maxwell’s trademark deadpan style brilliantly.

But, for the first time, watching one of Maxwell’s plays, I felt the style to be a barrier rather than a help. It is less pronounced than it was; his earliest pieces to visit the Barbican were bleached of emotion, with characters delivering their lines as if reading an autocue, which was, paradoxically, very moving.

Here the delivery is less flat: it is more clinically precise, encouraging you to hear clearly the way speech is used. And the dialogue is punctuated by highly stylised fights, which are simultaneously funny and disturbing. Yet this time I found the production’s style wearing and some of the characters’ longer speeches monotonous and hard to engage with. The play’s subject is significant, but, surprisingly, I found myself yearning for a more conventional treatment of it.

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