In Kate Whoriskey’s witty, sensitive production for Signature Theater, the role of Max is shared by two actors, alternating performances. Ben Edelman, so excellent opposite Hecht in Joshua Harmon’s “Admissions,” is the more raucous Max, with a bigger personality that gets bigger laughs. Whatever is behind that facade, though, remains hidden from us. Zane Pais’s loose-limbed Max is the one who brings the tenderness, which cracks the play open emotionally and also, somehow, poetically. Skinny and floppy-haired, with a restless intensity and a searching intelligence, he is at once irrepressible and unavoidably vulnerable.
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This slender play has some of the spareness of poetry, which Sarah and Max periodically speak aloud. If, at a scant two hours including intermission, the production seems sometimes to be moving too fast, it also has interludes when it slows down — as in an exquisite scene between Max and a winged character who is both an angel and a tattoo artist, and is played by Edelman or Pais, whichever of them isn’t embodying Max at that performance.
In that third role, Edelman (on piano) and Pais (on guitar) each also play underscoring music that they wrote with the sound designer, Sinan Refik Zafar. The last music the audience hears, though, was composed by Ritvo. The effect of it all, in tandem with the other design elements, is a sense of ethereality. (The set is by Marsha Ginsberg, costumes by Anita Yavich, lighting by Amith Chandrashaker and projection and video by S Katy Tucker.)
Ruhl’s plays are sometimes mistranslated from page to stage — rendered less poetic than they are, and more earthbound. Like Les Waters with “Eurydice,” Whoriskey is the rare director who grasps the ineffable in Ruhl, and knows how to make sense of it in three dimensions. For all its talk of this world and corporeality, “Letters From Max” exists on a slightly other plane.
Ruhl and Ritvo’s conversation was as much about the life of the mind, and the work of an artist, as it was about the life of the body and the existence of the soul. Ruhl has fashioned from it the kind of play that makes you want to dig in afterward: into the letters between them, into her plays, into his poems. Since the closure of Signature’s thoughtfully curated lobby bookstore — a casualty of the coronavirus pandemic — no production there has made me miss it as powerfully as this one.