Review: Letters From Max, a ritual

by Lynn on November 16, 2023

in The Passionate Playgoer

Live and in person at the Theatre Centre, Franco Boni Theatre, Toronto, Ont. Produced by Necessary Angel. Running until Dec. 3. 2023.

By Sarah Ruhl

Based on the book by Sarah Ruhl and Max Ritvo

Directed by Alan Dilworth

Set and Costumes by Michelle Tracey

Lighting by Rebecca Picherack

Sound by Debashis Sinha

Choreography by Monica Dottor

Cast: Maev Beaty

Jesse LaVercombe

When Max Ritvo was 20-years-old he applied to be a student in playwright Sarah Ruhl’s playwrighting class at Yale. On his application he wrote that he had never written a play. He was a poet and a member of a comedy troupe. Sarah Ruhl’s teaching assistant put Ritvo’s application in the “no” pile. When Sarah Ruhl reviewed the “no” applications, she was struck by Max Ritvo’s intriguing way of expression, that he was a poet and that he purported to be funny—a combination she really appreciated. She accepted him instantly. When Sarah Ruhl (Maev Beaty) first met Max Ritvo (Jesse LaVercombe) in person in class, she was charmed by his irreverence, joy for life, thoughtfulness and the ‘light’ that seemed to be around him.

Early on in the course (2012) he said he would have to leave early because he had tickets to Philip Glass’s opera Einstein on the Beach and needed to leave early to eat—his digestive system had been compromised by chemo when he had pediatric Ewings Sarcoma when he was a teenager. Sarah Ruhl was impressed that he got tickets—she was unable to secure them for herself—and assigned him a task: he had to give a five-minute review of the experience to the class. Max Ritvo took more than an hour to review the experience for the class, giving particular attention to the slowness of scenes and the slow counting of numbers in scenes. Einstein on the Beach was five hours long, without an intermission. One of the women in the class was incensed that this young man had taken so much of the class time with the ‘review.’ We are told by Sarah Ruhl that the woman became one of Max Ritvo’s best friends, such was his charm and effect on people.

Max Ritvo was a tireless writer. He lived to write, mainly poetry. But there were his many e-mails to Sarah Ruhl which were initially formally respectful (“Dear Professor Ruhl”…) and then after the second e-mail (we are told from Professor Ruhl) it was “Dear Sarah.” The e-mails were plentiful on both sides. In Max, Sarah Ruhl found a student (initially) who was bright, smart, hugely intelligent, literary, esoteric, philosophical and briming with insight and life. That last part is ironic because Max Ritvo was dying—no spoiler, we are told the cancer came back. Then it was as if Max was living at warp speed, to cram all his living, his writing and experiencing love and marriage into one short time.

He wrote poems, many to Sarah—dense, thoughtful, complex. He coaxed her to show him her poems. Sarah Ruhl was his teacher but he became hers as he showed her (and us?) how to live while dying from a disease and dealing with the treatment of it.

Over the course of the class and after—Ritvo was accepted in a Master’s English program at Columbia—the e-mails continued, from across the country, or across the city, many detailing his daily trials with cancer. He and Sarah became loving friends without any sexual relationship. Ritvo became that gifted student teachers dream of. He and Sarah could talk about anything and everything with a literary bent, joke, eat soup—soup factors heavily in Letters From Max, a ritual. They gushed over each other’s work without reservation.

One day Sarah Ruhl suggested that they take their correspondence and have it published in a ‘little book.’  He was stunned, but delighted at this. It’s a natural assumption when you are celebrated Sarah Ruhl to have everything your write, published.  (It’s usually not that easy). Max Ritvo had his book of poetry, Four Reincarnations, rejected by 25 publishers before it was published (posthumously).  

The book “Letters from Max, a ritual” is 309 pages long. Sarah Ruhl edited the letters down to this two hour and 15-minute play. It had a short run in New York City last year. This production produced by Necessary Angel is the Canadian premier. Alan Dilworth, the Artistic Director of Necessary Angel has a particular affinity with Sarah Ruhl, who he knows, and whose work he has often produced and directed.

There is a special feeling with Letters From Max, a ritual, almost reverential—gifted writers finding each other, soulmates, sharing thoughts, dreams, fears, ideas, humour and one of them will die at 25 in 2016. Crushing. At one time or another we have all dealt with disease, loss and death in one form or another. That too connects one to the work.

The cast of Maev Beaty as Sarah and Jesse LaVercombe as Max is a winning combination. Maev Beaty is an encouraging presence towards Max when they first meet, turning almost motherly when he becomes depressed at his ill-health, and tender and compassionate when he is sick, scared, but still provocatively creative. Jesse LaVercombe as Max is ‘present’, curious, intensely self-confident, esoteric in his expressions, impish and comfortable in his being accepted as an equal by this gifted playwright. At times this mutual admiration between the two seems to close off the audience from being included.

The set and costumes by Michelle Tracey are simple and evocative. There are two desks, one on either side of the stage with chairs at each. There is a mug for tea on each and bowls for soup on one of the desks. The costumes for Sarah are simple, long sweater, slacks—the long sweater seems almost Virginia Woolf-like. Max wears a scarf jauntily wrapped around his neck, a top and pants. The shoes are interesting: comfortable black shoes with red shoe laces, Max being an extravert right down to his laces.    

Director Alan Dilworth obviously respects and loves this work. His direction is initially simple—the chairs are moved to suggest different locations, scenes, times etc. but after a time the moving of the chairs becames bothersome and not helpful. At one point Max recites something and writes “There is NO God” in chalk on the floor at the same time that Sarah is talking—distracting and symbolism writ large. While Maev Beaty’s Sarah is determined to be buoyant for Max as he gets sicker, Alan Dilworth either deliberately or inadvertently falls for the sentimentality trap when he directs Maev Beaty to pause longer than needed to say that Max had died. It just makes the whole enterprise seem deliberately precious.

Letters from Max, a ritual is moving to be sure when one of the creators is no longer with us. Whether it’s good theatre for a curious audience or more fitting for an audience that likes esoteric, intellectual musings between intellectuals, is another matter.

Necessary Angel presents:

Opened: Nov. 15, 2023

Runs until Dec. 3, 2023

Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes (1 intermission)

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