Hotel Room Theater: Richard Maxwell's 'Showcase' at the Millennium Biltmore

I’m not sure how you spent your Saturday night but I spent part of mine in a hotel room with a bunch of strangers looking at a naked man sprawled out on his bed like T.S. Eliot’s “patient etherized upon a table.”

A room at the Millennium Biltmore Hotel in downtown L.A. was the site of “Showcase,” a performance work by renegade playwright and director Richard Maxwell. The production, which had a brief run this past weekend, starred one of Maxwell’s most muscular interpreters, Obie-winning actor Jim Fletcher.

Audience members were instructed to meet at the hotel bar 20 minutes before the performance — a comforting starting point for such an unusual theatrical assignation. We were then ushered upstairs to the dimly lit room. I was seated on the bed opposite the one Fletcher was lying on in all his unclothed glory. As the other theatergoers filed in, I found myself chastely wondering where to look.

Fletcher’s moles, private parts and fleshy bulk were offered as a kind of substitute for the program one normally flips through while waiting for the show to begin. Fortunately, there was another figure on the bed to divert attention — an actor (Bob Feldman) covered from head to toe in what looked like a black leotard.

At first I thought this second performer was engaged in a feline masquerade. But not long into this roughly 30-minute monologue it is explained that this figure is the male character’s shadow. 

Fletcher played a businessman holed up in a hotel room while at a conference. The character’s identity remains murky throughout the feverish chatter. What is his name? After putting on a shirt and tie, he placed around his neck a conference badge identifying the wearer as “Jim Fletcher.”

The distinction between theater and reality is meant to be hazy. Early into the piece, Fletcher pointed to an audience member and said that one’s going to be “a troublemaker.” He was joshing in character but also indirectly acknowledging the oddity of the performance situation. What were we all doing together in this overheated standard business hotel room? Has theater hooked up with Tinder? 

The tale Fletcher told wasn’t easy to pin down, but what emerged was a portrait of isolation. The story of a failed relationship with another man — an ex-roommate who might have been a lover — was communicated in shards made all the more puzzling by the character’s denial, and self-deceit.  

The only human contact this character has now, beyond the generic company excursions and stale dealmaking bonhomie, is with the embodiment of his own silence, the shadow he clutches at times like the lover he is unable to let in. (This shadow, permitted a degree of autonomy, rushed to the bathroom at one point, closed the door and filled the room with the sound of a flushing toilet, a stinging retort perhaps to all that has been said.)    

Fletcher, a gruffly masculine presence, resembled a David Mamet salesman trapped in an Edward Hopper painting. The writing has the cadences of that kind of circular self-talk that occurs in the middle of the night after you’ve awakened for no reason and find yourself jostled by old memories.

“Showcase” is frustratingly elusive but can be appreciated as a minor site-specific extension of the author’s unique body of work. Maxwell, founder of the theater company New York City Players, has developed a highly distinctive performance aesthetic since bursting onto the downtown New York scene in the 1990s.

In early plays such as “House,” “Caveman” and “Boxing 2000,” Maxwell fashioned a style of neutral performance that drains emotional color from impoverished speech. Struggling to communicate against severe theatrical restrictions, Maxwell’s characters (at their best) poignantly map out the penurious poetic territory between what they feel and what they are able to say.

To compensate the members of his stammering tribe, Maxwell provides a lucky few of them with a song, often a pop parody with flat lyrics that allow their feelings to soar momentarily on off-key wings. Fletcher was given such a ditty at the end of “Showcase.” The dreary amateur lyricism clarified nothing but the extent of his aloneness.

“Showcase” as a play is underrealized. The setting, however, infused the character study with stark resonance. More compelling than the words Fletcher uttered was his courage as a performer. The actor, in the best tradition of his art, sacrificed all privacy for the exposure of something human, the flicker of a soul. We may have looked away in modesty, but a shared recognition was made. 

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charles.mcnulty@latimes.com

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