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Essay

Notes on Max Posner

By Adam Greenfield, Associate Artistic Director

I usually do everything I can to avoid referencing Chekhov. But as I search for a way to write about the wry, fragile, existentially troubled world of Max Posner’s plays, I find the comparison unavoidable. My guilt is only mildly mitigated by the fact that Max himself has drawn the connection with his terrific play Judy (2015). A year in the life of three middle-aged siblings in the year 2040, Judy takes as its epigraph this line from Three Sisters, in which Tuzenbach imagines life a few hundred years hence: “People will travel around in flying machines, they’ll wear different-style jackets, maybe they’ll discover a sixth sense and expand our perceptions, but life won’t change. It will still be hard.”

Chekhov, whose comedies find tragedy in the trivial, in the inevitability of human folly, writes of lonely, desperate, and self-absorbed characters who suffer for no clear reason, and with no clear resolution. They search frantically for meaning, only to confront their maddening, pedestrian human limitations, chronically coming up empty-handed. Likewise, at the very heart of Max’s writing is this same impassioned search for understanding — of family, of reality, of the self — as the sweet, anxious characters who populate his work come up against their own shortcomings. But where Chekhov famously wrote that in his plays “people are sitting at a table having dinner, that’s all, but at the same time their happiness is being created, or their lives are being torn apart,” Max is writing in a far different landscape, a brave new world. “The bulk of our time isn’t spent arguing and communing at a table,” he wrote recently in an artist’s statement. “It’s spent babbling into devices, trying to salvage some feeling of closeness across inexplicable distances.”

In Judy, Max imagines a future in which technological advancements have tethered us less to our jobs, providing us with more time for self-reflection and humanitarian aid, eradicated cancer and car accidents, and connected electronically via a new platform called “System” which makes Facebook look as quaint as the telegraph. (The future has also, pointedly, rendered theater extinct.) But sadly, and to great comedic effect, none of these new tools have solved the problem of being human. The three siblings at the center of Max’s play, who seem to be his riff on the Prozorov family in Chekhov’s, are confounded by their lot, spastically trying to make sense of their broken hearts, their moody children, and their increasingly unhinged family. They can’t figure out how to communicate, and in their desperation resort to distorted, gymnastic attempts that only land them deeper in their isolation.

“I am desperate to communicate something that I can’t quite articulate,” Max writes. “I am obsessed by our attempts to articulate messy innards, with the ways we fail, and with the ways these failures create alternate realities inside of our individual heads. Realities paved with the things we meant to say, the things we never say, the things we wish we hadn’t said, the lives murmuring beneath our actual lives.” Language in Max’s plays is as frenetic as the thoughts in his characters’ heads, made up of misfires, mistakes, and constant self-revisions that form a kind of musical score that distinctly reflects the anxious pulse of the modern urban world. Near the opening of Judy, the painfully awkward Timothy tries to hide from a service technician the fact that his wife has left him:

TIMOTHY
Judy was just asking me upstairs as she
was getting out of the shower
(her skin was very damp, you know, H2O
gathered in the shoulder dips?)
(What’s the medical word for shoulder dip?)
(You know: the sinking skin round the bone near the neck?)
(Am I talking about a clavicle?)
(Do you have a girlfriend?)
When I was round your age Judy used to
get into the bed all wet and soap smelling
— vaguely heard her showering through
some walls in my dreams, she’d lie back
down all wet, post-shower saying “just
one more min” and I’d press her into the
mattress and say “nine more mins.” Do
you have a girlfriend? What was I saying?
Oh yeah Judy asked me the strangest
thing just now upstairs… She was like,
“Timothy: Who will be our successors?”
and I was like, “Well, our daughter, Eloise
will.” and she was like, “No not you and
me — WE — OUR — EVERYONE” (as she was
wiping the wet off her calves) and she
said “Timothy: we’ve created our own
successors: Machines.”

In Gun Logistics (2014), a woman and man are in their cars, separated by a great distance but racing toward each other on the highway. They may or may not have ever met one another, and they may or may not in fact be married, and it’s likely the circumstance of their relationship is mysterious even to them, but what unfolds is an intricate tapestry of words in a pursuit of articulating love itself, a beautifully crafted muck of rapidly-moving thoughts in which language is simultaneously too much and too little. Ultimately, the writing of this play seems to suggest, language is at best a means to fill a lack. At one point in this play, the Man abandons his car and hops on a plane, where he tells us:

MAN
There is turbulence and the clouds are stringy
I left my watch somewhere
When I need the time I look at my phone now.
Sorry to state the obvious but
Phones have replaced clocks
UGH
What am I trying to say?
I wish I wrote songs
Because you don’t have to say so much to say a lot.
When I speak to people
I try to capture a tune
On the phone with her
I try to capture a tune
Like this is a slow one
Or this one gets to a high note
Like this one is steady
Like this is the chorus of what I am trying to say to you.

His earlier play Snore (2012) is similarly interested in understanding the disorientation of today’s culture, this time centering on a group of sharp-tongued 20-somethings blessed with high-end liberal arts educations, a sturdy ethical fiber, and burgeoning careers in the nation’s most respected and righteous non-profits. But with school behind them, their idealism — and their tight-knit circle — is diffused by the confusing, exhausting realities of living in the actual world. Set over the course of six birthday parties in one year, Snore maps the deterioration of their friendships, and their good intentions, as they come of age into a murky new world. “How does a universe aching to generate order, grids, right angles and compartments respond to the mess of our lives?” Max asks in an online interview. “I believe in the comedic potential of sadness — people who almost ‘get it’ but don’t, or who aren’t gotten, or who maybe had it and lost it. Our culture values efficiency. I write about people who are emotionally inefficient.”

The first time I came across the name Max Posner, about nine years ago, is firmly stamped in my memory. As an undergraduate at Brown University, a student of Paula Vogel’s, he submitted his first script to Playwrights Horizons.  A wildly funny, mournful, time-bending play called The Thing About Air Travel, it was unlike anything else, and as I sat down to write this page I looked up the notes I jotted down after reading it: “Who is this 20-year-old, and how did he do that? We should read everything he writes.” A couple years later, he was a Literary Fellow at Playwrights; a couple years after that we started developing his plays in our New Works Lab; and then we commissioned him, which led to The Treasurer, and to me shaking my head as I look back at his dynamic trajectory as a playwright so far considering how this new one is an apotheosis of his pursuits. A man is appointed by his family as “Treasurer” of his 88-year-old mother’s finances, and as she deteriorates he becomes increasingly exasperated with her and finds himself deteriorating at the same pace. 

“The piece is my attempt to write an accurate history of my family in an associative, language-driven form,” Max has said. But, as in his previous plays, relationships between humans are mystifying — particularly between children and their parents — and language is an unstable exchange between its speakers, so an “accurate history” begins to appear unreachable, a dramaturgical Mobius strip, in which the struggle to understand, lovingly doomed to stumble, is stuck traveling in perpetuity. 

“I took things very seriously as a child,” Max is quoted in the blog I Interview Playwrights, “which meant I was laughed at quite often by my own family. I wore shoes that were way too big because they felt right. I would trip down the stairs. I wanted to go to clown college. I’ve always been interested in accidents, and therefore theatre.”