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Review: In ‘Field of Mars,’ a March Toward Oblivion

“Field of Mars,” written and directed by the experimental playwright Richard Maxwell, is mainly set in a chain restaurant with a menu globalized to the point of comedy, where a character is asked if he’d like to upgrade his “Blue Hawaiian” drink to “mucho” size.

The play, titled after an ancient Roman training area, gestures blandly and indistinctly at themes of mankind’s history across two very long acts at NYU Skirball. Presented by Maxwell’s New York City Players as part of this year’s Under the Radar Festival, the play, starring 11 actors with mostly unnamed roles, offers a number of themes and variations without cohesion or novelty.

It begins with two Adam and Eve figures waking up before the setting shifts (helped with Sascha van Riel’s lighting)to a generic, present-day eatery in Chapel Hill, N.C., where Kaye Voyce costumes its employees in half-worn face masks and van Riel’s set recalls the insipidness of a Panera Bread. There, three staff members discuss its music playlist while, in a nearby booth, two songwriters (Jim Fletcher and James Moore) attempt to collaborate with two younger industry figures (Nicholas Elliott and Steven Thompson). Both groups are prone to lengthy discussions about music, the reactions specific genres have inspired, the way they’ve made them feel, and how the songs have advanced our culture. It’s through these chats that Maxwell’s main theme is laid bare: how have humans grown from, subverted, or undermined their past, and what will come from it?

But the theme remains a blank evocation, as these conversations, with their glacial, incongruous tempos, are more Maxwell’s excuse for distancing experiments than actual meditations. He compellingly blurs lines between the mundane and grander visions of our origins, but haphazardly sprinkles religious imagery and scientific theory into the dialogue. The vague suggestion of these ideas and their presentation are banal enough already, let alone stretched to two-and-a-half hours with intermission, and the interminable listing of musical acts, from The Beatles to Tina Turner to Throbbing Gristle, doesn’t seem to make any larger point. We are creatures of and obsessed with lineage, yes; next.

The cast is a Who’s Who of downtown New York performers, including Eleanor Hutchins and Tory Vazquez, but they are cornered by the work’s pretensions and forced, experimental aesthetic. They deliver their lines in an emotionless, crystal-clear manner that verges on the unrehearsed; not entirely affectless, but rather with the slightly enunciated flatness of an audio tutorial.

The strongest sign of life comes from the restaurant’s young bartender, played by the choreographer Gillian Walsh. We learn the most about her life — she plays in a cover band with her married boyfriend, to whom she refers as her “BF” because she is also the play’s stand-in for the internet age — and Walsh delivers her lines with a droll mix of bemusement and resignation reminiscent of Aubrey Plaza. With a certain amount of emotion finally at play, her blunt admission that, “It feels about 200 years too late to sing the praises of the natural world, and that’s fine,” even as it comes with little preparation, makes one of the play’s few direct strikes toward something beyond rudimentary icebreakers.

The rest is a loosely assembled medley of purposefully alienating silences and conversations about human advancement, one of whichbrings together Roe v. Wade, Black Lives Matter and the coronavirus in one speech. It’s meant to shrink monumental events into the galactic blip they truly are, but the play is too intent on being experimentalto make an effect. Here, what Ben Brantley once called Maxwell’s “Olympian calm of a playwright with a god’s-eye view” seems to bump its head on the ceiling, repeating its distant observations from a cold distance.

Field of Mars
Through Jan. 29 at NYU Skirball, Manhattan; nyuskirball.org. Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes, including an intermission.

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