The relationship between teacher and student in Letters from Max, a ritual, receiving its world premiere at Signature Theatre Company, starts off sweet and ends bittersweet. But there is nothing saccharine about this celebration of creative skill and a life cut short.
Sarah Ruhl is the playwright of Letters. Sarah Ruhl is also one of the two characters in the play. Past collaborator Jessica Hecht (Stage Kiss) plays Ruhl, who first met Max Ritvo as a twenty-year-old applicant to her playwriting class at Yale University. He had never written a play, but was a poet, and not just a poet! A poet with a sense of humor! “Funny poets are my favorite kind of human being,” Sarah (the character) says. The two also connect over his interest in the avant-garde; he’d purchased tickets to the storied 2012 revival of Robert Wilson and Philip Glass’s Einstein on the Beach at Brooklyn Academy of Music.
Shortly thereafter, Sarah learns a bit more about why she might feel a special connection to Max as a student. His mordant wit possibly stems from that fact that he was first diagnosed with Ewing’s sarcoma, a pediatric cancer, when he was sixteen years old. Letters charts their friendship over the next five years, including the time that the cancer recurred during his senior year and up through his 2016 passing at the age of 25. Ruhl, who has written her own play with two characters communicating vis-à-vis onstage via letter, Dear Elizabeth, tells his tale in chronological order, but with some asides.
In facing the sad subject matter head-on, director Kate Whoriskey skirts melodrama altogether and instead celebrates both Max as a creative and Max as a compadre to Sarah. Ruhl has based Letters on a published compilation her letters with Ritvo, and this production does everything it can to feel soulful instead of static. From a visual standpoint, Marsha Ginsberg’s white set design includes a rotating cylinder, not unlike a repositioned MRI machine, at center stage that spins open to reveal Max in various locations, usually hospitals. The curved wall has slits cut into it; all the better for S. Katy Tucker’s projected images, including winged imagery, abstract color combinations, even a backdrop out of The Flintstones, to appear – and the visuals merge well with Amith Chandrashaker’s lighting choices.
Hecht is terrific here. Her challenge is two-fold; she must build a bridge with the actor playing Max as well as with the audience, and she charts this gradual emergence of trust as both character and narrator with an ethereal warmth. Sometimes she relays information directly; other times, as when she feels a stanza Max has written is a little dicey, or when her overeager student asks her to stand up and read a poem in a public restaurant, the audience becomes her confidant.
Intriguingly, Whoriskey has cast two actors as Max, sharing the role over an even number of performances during the show’s run. Ben Edelman and Zane Pais alternate as Max. (Both are onstage each night; when not playing Max, the other actor functions in a secondary track, helping move the action and provide props in roles like a waiter and tattoo artist, and play underscoring music that each has composed himself). I saw a performance with the excellent Edelman, who previously played Hecht’s son in Joshua Harmon’s Admissions, and his performance here is a tour de force. In two short hours and five even shorter years onstage, he is able to suggest a life’s worth of lessons learned about creativity and capability – and the limitations of both therein. “Everything in my life, the fabric of my life itself, is dissolving,” he says, Edelman’s delivery making Max’s condition painfully palpable.
There are drawbacks to this production as well. Letters’ staging conceit breeds a certain amount of inauthenticity. As The Wanderers also recently demonstrated, it’s hard to create a work of the stage in epistolary form and not have the exchanges feel immediate; it’s impossible to do it without heating and making it feel like there’s more of a connection in the moment than there is. In reality, some of the dialogue in Letters took place in email and text form, and hours, if not days, sometimes went by before a response came through. One might also be surprised to find out that real life happened for Max beyond his creative output and the anguished health concerns dramatized in the show – Sarah mentions his wedding day, and I was unaware a fiancée had event entered the picture during this time.
Letters also doesn’t adequately check in on itself. Ruhl the playwright lets Sarah the character off the hook. Sarah is essentially having an emotional affair with Max – even though nothing untoward happens between them, she has chosen to let him into her life in a way she has not for her many other students. The show lets us believe there are no issues leading her to become close to Max, not caused by their relationship, but that thread should not go ignored. (At one point, Sarah hints at her own weaknesses as a poet – might that have played into her friendship with him?)
There is also plenty of unchecked privilege in their story; Max’s schooling and medical care is better than many, in large part because he comes from money and prestige, with parents and a stepfather steeped high in the worlds of finance, medicine, and the Ivy League. Perhaps there was something mutually beneficial to the multiple trips that Ruhl and her husband, two East Coast showbusiness people, made to Los Angeles? These are not accusations, but things a dramaturg who didn’t live the experience on display here could have made a point of addressing in pointed form.
Back to the positive: Letters From Max is an apt tribute to the connection formed between two people who know how hard it is create art – and live life at the same exact time.
Letters from Max