‘Letters From Max’ Off Broadway Review: Death Becomes Them

Sarah Ruhl adapts an epistolary book into a solemn stage exercise in endurance, grief and self-congratulation

Joan Marcus

You know you’re in for a long haul as soon as the piano player takes to the stage to begin pounding out a series of ponderous Rachmaninoff-esque chords. He is Ben Edelman, and when he isn’t playing the piano to accompany the other actors as they recite poetry and letters, he is pushing around the big, circular partition that, at times, reveals an examination chair in a doctor’s office. Long before Edelman dons a pair of angel wings (costumes by Anita Yavich), we know that Max (Zane Pais) has cancer and that approximately two hours later he will die at the age of 25.  

Sarah Ruhl’s “Letters From Max, a Ritual,” is based on her 2018 book, “Letters From Max: A Poet, a Teacher, a Friendship,” written with Max Ritvo. The play adaptation received its world premiere Monday at the Pershing Square Signature Center, presented by Signature Theatre.

Shakespeare wrote about death, but he didn’t write much about disease. Plays about disease are a more contemporary phenomenon. Cancer, AIDS and other illnesses are today’s version of the deus ex machina. God descends to make someone sick and set the action in motion.

Despite all the poetry read to us, and there’s a ton of it, “Letters From Max” is nonfiction. Ritvo was Ruhl’s student in college, and they developed a friendship as he endured countless chemotherapy treatments, as well as a number of operations, before he died in 2016. What’s breathtaking about Ruhl’s play is that her two characters compliment each other relentlessly on what great writers they are. Their friendship is a love fest while it lasts. Sometimes they hold a big old microphone to speak to the audience. This prop is used to indicate when they are reciting their poetry, although there’s little difference between their poetry and their letters, which are as self-consciously written to impress and endure the ravages of time as their poems.

Zain Pais’s portrayal of Max is so strong and vital he appears to be running a marathon, as if afraid to say or do anything that will upset his caring professor and friend. Jessica Hecht’s portrayal of Sarah appears to be talking on egg shells, as if afraid to say or do anything that will upset her dying student and friend.

As the director, Kate Whoriskey puts on quite a show. Edelman’s pushing around that “2001: A Space Odyssey” monolith like a modern-day Job provides much needed action. Marsha Ginsberg’s stark set, in addition to giving Edelman something to do, provides ample room for S Katy Tucker’s imaginative projections that visualize Ruhl’s dreams. It seems the poet-playwright dreamed a lot during and immediately after her time with Max, and unlike most people, she recalls those dreams in vivid detail as only a writer of fiction can. She also timed her dreams and knows how long they ran in her mind.

Edelman and Pais alternate in their roles.