There is so much love that Sarah Ruhl has put into this play, and into the book from which it’s adapted, and into the letters and poems exchanged between Ruhl and Max Ritvo that make up the book, and into the relationship between her and Ritvo, her former student and friend, embodied in those letters and poems, that one cannot help but feel moved by the effort.
But there’s a dilemma at the heart of “Letters from Max, A Ritual” which the character of Max articulated for me, unintentionally. The line, like all Max’s lines in the play, was not imagined by Ruhl but actually written by Ritvo, a respected poet who lived much of his life battling cancer and seven years ago died of it at the age of 25:
“I don’t really know how to talk to people about my illness in a nondestructive way, or how they’re supposed to listen.”
This is not to say that “Letters from Max, A Ritual,” which is being performed at Signature Theater through March 19, is all about illness. The play begins (as does the book) with Max Ritvo’s application letter to Sarah Ruhl to get into her playwriting class at Yale, introducing himself as a poet and comedian, and we do detect the comedian now and then. Amid a persistent and sometimes baffling motif throughout the play about soup, the two joke that instead of state flowers, there should be state soups
Max: Massachusetts would have clam chowder—
Sarah: Texas, tortilla soup–
Max: Matzoh Ball soup, New York.
And the show, directed by Kate Whoriskey, is done meticulously. Jessica Hecht portrays Sarah, who serves both as narrator and epistolary companion to Max, who is portrayed on alternate days by Ben Edelman and Zane Pais. When Edelman is Max, Pais plays his own original music on the guitar; when Pais is Max, Edelman plays his own original music on the piano. (Both underscores are created with sound designer Sinan Refik Zafar.) Each non-Max also serves in mute extra roles (like a waiter, a tattoo artist, an angel.) Although the characters are actually writing letters to one another, the actors don’t sit still, their moves kept lively and varied by choreographer Warren Adams.
The set is dominated by a half shell in the middle of an otherwise empty stage, which swivels around, sometimes showing Max on a hospital bed. There are video projections, at one point the lighting flashes and twirls and pulsates like a disco, when Max is giving a poetry reading at 13th Street Rep.
Even when there are no flashing lights or projections, and their conversation turns to matters of life and death, their observations can be stimulating. At one point, they talk about different religions’ views about the afterlife. Max says: “When we ask about the afterlife, we’re conquering death with imagination. We’re saying that we’re having so much fun, we don’t want it to ever stop.”
But unlike other epistolary plays – A.R. Gurney’s “Love Letters” comes to mind – “Letters from Max, A Ritual” is as much a poetry reading as it is a dialogue, and it was frankly hard for me to listen for two hours. I think this would have been the case even if so much of the poetry had not been about mortality. The words of some of the poems are projected onto the stage, but not enough of them.
Ruhl offers her reasons why she wanted to turn her 2018 book — “Letters from Max: A Poet, a Teacher, a Friendship” — into a play. One of them is expressed in a line written by Max Ritvo that is on the backdrop of the stage as we enter the theater: “Even present tense has some of the grace of past tense, what with all the present tense left to go.”
When it’s on the page, it’s only past tense; on the stage, the story of Max and Sarah becomes present tense.
This is the fourth play I’ve seen adapted from a book in as many months: Before this, Larry Sultan’s Pictures from Home adapted by Sharr White, and two books adapted by their authors, Quiara Alegria Hudes My Broken Language and Gabriel Byrne’s Walking with Ghosts
Although all of them tell personal stories, “Letters from Max” feels the most private.
In one exchange, Max says: “General feelings of anxiety—I’m starting to worry that my poetry is indulgent and insulated”
Sarah responds: “Poetry by nature is insulated and indulgent. Only some small degree of emotional restraint keeps it from being indulgent, and some small degree of sharing it with others keeps it from being insulated.”
Their particular exchanges feel better shared in quiet. They worked better as a book.
Letters from Max, A ritual
Signature through March 19
Running time: Two hours, including one intermission
Tickets: $49 – $139
Written by Sarah Ruhl, based on the book by Sarah Ruhl and Max Ritvo
Directed by Kate Whoriskey
Scenic design by Marsha Ginsberg, costume design by Anita Yavich, lighting design by Amith Chandrashaker, sound design by Sinan Refik Zafar, projection design by S. Katy Tucker, choreographer by Warren Adams
Cast: Jessica Hecht as Sarah,with Ben Edelman and Zane Pais alternating as Max.