The Forever Waltz
nytheatre.com review by Matthew Trumbull
March 12, 2005
Grief lends strange powers to the bereft. Lovers know this best. Like Orpheus, whose grief for Eurydice fearlessly drove him to the Underworld to reclaim her spirit, he who abruptly loses his other half to tragedy feels preternaturally capable of tearing holes through time and corporality to hold her again. Healthy and happy one day, gone forever the next, can make such spirits of the dead seem, in a word, proximate.
Glyn Maxwell’s The Forever Waltz, now premiering at the WorkShop Theatre, takes an eerie, contemporary bent on the Orpheus myth. Our hero is now named Mobile. That’s right—even across the river Styx, you can’t get away from cell phones now. Mobile has one when we meet him, just as he is descending into the Underworld and losing his signal. What Mobile doesn’t have is a clue about what his real name is, how he got to his present location, and any memory about the lover he just lost. Grief-stricken and bewildered, he only knows he misses her, and needs her back. Watts, an Underworld guide, arrives with guitar and sunglasses to help this man reconstruct his vague memories and anecdotes into a sense of his lost lover. He also gives Mobile his name, as much for his journey to the other side of death as for his cell phone.
Their efforts meet with only moderate success at first—Mobile recalls her name, Evie, but only after Watts summons several ghostly distortions of her does one arrive that seems to be close enough to the original. Immediately Mobile is swept up in her presence and dives back into a life with her, forgetting despite Watts’s warnings that he has not yet escaped back into the real world with a real woman. In fact, Watts’s mission is to trap Mobile into a violent cycle of horrific events, doomed to repeat until Mobile can retain vivid enough memories of Evie to release himself from the craving to have her with him always.
Maxwell is a noted poet as well as playwright, and this play definitely has a poet’s touch. The language, though contemporary, is verse-like, and all three characters speak with peculiar verbosity, particularly in the scenes between Mobile and Evie. They are a snippy couple from the get-go, often irritated or creeped out by one another, and the problem seems to be that neither gives the other a straight answer about anything—their fantasies, the plan for the day, the frustration about always going to the same restaurant. Much of the dialogue is alarmingly clever, due to the fact that these exchanges are devoid of humor or ease. Evie and Mobile seem to exhaust one another, and neither wins the audience’s heart. Though the play explores powerful themes of grief, memory, devotion, and fidelity, we never get to see this couple truly in love, and that irreparably damages the sympathy of the characters, lowers the stakes of the plot, and dilutes the investment the audience makes in a play that, like poetry, does not dwell in straightforward conclusions.
Watts, the enigmatic figure from the Underworld played by Barry Abramowitz, is the only character who is never out of sorts, either in his role as greeter for the land of the dead, or as a mysterious waiter in Mobile and Evie’s favorite restaurant when their love story picks up again. His all-knowing, all-powerful smugness seems more suited to the former. As a waiter, his grating confidence in his own charm makes Mobile and Evie cringe when they are being served by him.
But Abramowitz and his cast mates, Jennifer Kathryn Marshall as Evie and Joshua Spafford as Mobile, seem uncomfortable in the soft-focused, metaphysical world of the play. Under the direction of Elysa Marden, the relationship dynamics are allowed to roam amongst a frustratingly limited choice of tone. What are Evie and Mobile like when they are adoring each other rather than bickering? How does Watts as the waiter get Evie to drop her guard enough to marry him (the most baffling plot point)? Does he pretend that she actually matters enough to him to break his calm? A marvelous element contained in the Greek mythology that this story is based on is missing here: Non-mortals are safe from death, but not from, anger, pity, lust, humor, doubt and all the things that make a character three-dimensional, and his encounters dramatic.
With a powerful realization, Mobile breaks the cycle of events that always leads to tragedy and another encounter with Watts below the earth. Maxwell deftly side-steps a factory-made, “And the moral is…” ending, simply giving Mobile a quiet decision to begin a new journey away from Evie. What he must leave behind and what he seeks are left to the reflection of the audience, and that is how Maxwell’s poetry experience is most powerfully wielded in the course of the evening.