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Letters from Max, a ritual

A famous playwright-teacher and her student celebrate their friendship and their ultimate exchange of roles in passionate, yet bittersweet letters and poems.

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Jessica Hecht and Ben Edelman in a scene from Sarah Ruhl’s “Letters from Max, a ritual” at Signature Theatre (Photo credit: Joan Marcus)

Tony Marinelli

Tony Marinelli, Critic

When a tall, lanky Max Ritvo entered Sarah Ruhl’s playwrighting class at Yale, she knew this was no ordinary 20-year-old student. Self-described as a poet with a sense of humor, he managed to capture her heart, and she remained forever changed. Letters from Max, a ritual, now being presented by Signature Theatre, is not just a collection of correspondence between the two, but a document of a deep emotional bond between two creative souls that can’t even be severed by the untimely death of one of them.

Where one would expect formalities in a professor-student relationship at an Ivy League school, their correspondence was on a first-name basis pretty quickly. This was a case of two people speaking each other’s language immediately. Ruhl had the utmost respect for Ritvo for an excuse he provided for needing to miss one of their earliest classes – before he even contemplated registering for her class he had the forethought to book tickets early on for what would be a sold out engagement at BAM of Robert Wilson’s Einstein on the Beach. Ruhl was envious that he had tickets, but she allowed him to miss class provided he would report on the event. What should have been a five-minute brief became a detailed one-hour discourse to the class. She chose not to rein him in, reveling in his presentation.

Ruhl is very clear in the preface to the play’s script in how these roles should be brought to the stage. “The actors should imagine that they are inhabiting the voices of Sarah and Max. And reading the language of Sarah and Max. When I say reading, that calls for emotion. When I say voice, I mean the spirit of the letter.” Ruhl gets exactly that and so much more. Additional notes tell us that during the audition process the two final candidates for the role of Max each brought a previously unthought of musicianship that became a fine complement to the letters and poems, thereby giving sound reason for the concept of both men alternating in the roles.

Jessica Hecht (standing) and Ben Edelman (sitting)  in a scene from Sarah Ruhl’s “Letters from Max, a ritual” at Signature Theatre (Photo credit: Joan Marcus)

When Max is played by Zane Pais, Ben Edelman accompanies the text seated at the piano performing his own original compositions…this is in addition to playing a silent angel or a tattoo artist, delivering soup, and moving the colossal white zoetrope that acts as a back wall until it reveals the expected hospital bed scenes. When Max is played by Ben Edelman, Zane Pais treats the audience to his own intimate guitar solos when he isn’t fulfilling the other stage management functions previously mentioned.

The actors are so believably Sarah Ruhl and Max Ritvo, we can forget we are watching a play. At this performance, it may have been an illusion, but it did seem Max (Ben Edelman) was getting more skeletal with each round of chemo. The weaker the cancer made him, the more the simple act of breathing became labored. In his first scenes he is very much the clever, engaging young man, so very wise beyond his years, that Sarah Ruhl sees this special soul in him. As the cancer symptoms recur, we see a determined young man fighting back every inch of the way. The audience is in the unenviable position of knowing how this is all going to end.

However, the art is clearly in how Edelman portrays a veiled tenacity in the midst of all the pain. Just when we see him sinking in physical stress, he revives stalwartly, barely diminished, never losing his sense of humor. A Halloween moment provides us with a hilarious image of him costumed as Wilma Flintstone…as they say, once you’ve seen it, you can’t very well unsee it. And we see the great strides – completing one degree and going for another, getting married, getting published – and we want him to live, so like Sarah Ruhl, we pretend not to see the decline.

Jessica Hecht gives an acutely sensitive performance. She is Sarah Ruhl, but she is also the audience. We see Max’s accomplishments and then his fragility, just as she perceives them. In all, she has the inner strength to uplift him as he needs it while she is very much crying on the inside (as are we). She is a wife, a mother, a teacher, a working playwright, and where it is most important here, the friend and confessor that Max needs. Hecht appears effortless in her positive reflection and spiritual counsel.  In a beautifully layered performance, her soups and her Buddhas are only the physical extensions of a heart as big, if not bigger, than the great playing space they are in. Even at the end, when Hecht must share that Max has died, she tries to be strong for us but loses that battle to the eventual tears…and still she soldiers on.

Ben Edelman and Jessica Hecht in a scene from Sarah Ruhl’s “Letters from Max, a ritual” at Signature Theatre (Photo credit: Joan Marcus)

Kate Whoriskey’s direction is the balancing act of delicately held china – protecting it but carefully holding it at arm’s length so that it can still be admired. There are scenes we wish would never end because we are enjoying the company of two very engaging people, and while the thought of the end is always looming, Whoriskey’s guiding hand makes us forget these were once e-mails and letters, and not the in-person intimate exchanges that we see.

Marsha Ginsberg’s scenic design and S Katy Tucker’s projection design complement each other. The white half-shell stage piece, in addition to masking the hospital bed behind it, provides a great canvas for displays of poetry text, as well as creating the settings for Max’s public readings. Amith Chandrashaker’s lighting design clearly defines the separate playing spaces from which the actors are writing to each other. Anita Yavich’s costumes are very much the extensions of Sarah’s and Max’s own wardrobes, with particular care taken in how the slender Max’s shirts probably look more fitting on the hanger.

Epistolary plays usually drag on because we hear, and see, the readers reading…even if they’re not. Letters from Max, a ritual is very much a play, as the language flows so comfortably as real dialogue that we are engaged in this friendship from the very beginning. For Sarah Ruhl and Max Ritvo, language is paramount…every word is calibrated to appeal to and enlighten the listener. First published as a book in 2018 only two years after Max’s death, Letters from Max: A Poet, A Teacher, A Friendship, is so much more than a grief-stricken tribute.  Now as a play, Ruhl gets to converse again with her dear friend eight times a week and succeeds at keeping his mind alive for an eager audience to appreciate.

Letters from Max, a ritual (extended through March 26, 2023)

Signature Theatre

Alice Griffin Jewel Box Theatre at The Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 West 42nd Street, in Manhattan

For tickets, visit http://www.signaturetheatre.org

Running time: two hours including one intermission

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Tony Marinelli
About Tony Marinelli (19 Articles)
Tony Marinelli is an actor, playwright, director, arts administrator, and now critic. He received his B.A. and almost finished an MFA from Brooklyn College in the golden era when Benito Ortolani, Howard Becknell, Rebecca Cunningham, Gordon Rogoff, Marge Linney, Bill Prosser, Sam Leiter, Elinor Renfield, and Glenn Loney numbered amongst his esteemed professors. His plays I find myself here, Be That Guy (A Cat and Two Men), and …and then I meowed have been produced by Ryan Repertory Company, one of Brooklyn’s few resident theatre companies.
Contact: Website

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