A Provocative New Play by Axial Theater Director Howard Meyer
By Matt Smith
Photos by Lynda Shenkman Curtis
“Goethe. There are passages in his books where he refers to ‘The Jew.’ An entire race of people summed up in two words. Can you imagine that today? The Black. The Muslim.”
I’m sure when playwright Howard Meyer initially wrote Maybe Never Fell, the brilliant new play now showing at the Axial Theatre in Pleasantville through Sunday, November 20th, he never intended it to premiere during such a tumultuous election season, let alone four days before the explosive reveal itself. Furthermore, if he’s like anyone in the rest of the world, it’s likely Meyer probably didn’t expect the outcome to be what it was. But given the result–and what’s transpired over the past week and a half (during which, mind you, this show has continued to play through)–this line, spoken by main character, the German-born Mattie, to American Jew Max, and the subject matter as a whole, are frighteningly more relevant today perhaps than ever before.
The storyline follows the 26-year-old German-born Mattie Schiller (the brilliant Sara Hogrefe), who’s been impregnated by American Jew Max Weber (a charming David Lanson), himself a lovelorn bachelor torn between his attraction to Mattie and ex-wife Rebecca, and plagued by the past actions of his ancestors, which makes it all the harder to align with his true cultural identity.
Deep stuff, indeed–and as director Jenn Haltman writes in the Director’s Note outlined on the first page of the program, “Digging into the ugliness that still lies beneath the surface is a hard thing to face up to.” That’s certainly true, and Meyer is completely unapologetic–indeed the subject matter is grim, straightforward, right in front of your face from the get-go–and there’s no escaping it, either, as it’s integral to the climax of the story.
What saves the piece, however, from being “just another rote history textbook lesson” (an expert move on Meyers’ part) is the interweaving of Mattie’s personal struggle (and on some level, Max’s, as well) alongside the historically true elements and events: she had had an abortion when she got pregnant at 15, by childhood best friend Gunther Holt (the hysterical Dominic Russo, who cleverly provides relevant comic relief, that comforts rather than distracts from the main action), and now struggles to come to terms with her new pregnancy by a man whom she fears will leave him eventually due to their religious differences and his newly proclaimed love for his ex-wife.
It’s a genius way of storytelling: it doesn’t hit us over the head with the historical elements, but still reminds us that it’s relevant, ever-present and lurking in the background ’til it’s used with passion and power in the final climatic scene. And at the same time the true revelation of Mattie’s and Max’s family history is revealed, Mattie simultaneously peaks within the story of her own struggle.
A tough task to pull off, no doubt, but, coupled with Meyer’s exquisite script, this cast does it effortlessly, with their top-notch performances blending perfectly with the others in each individual scene. As mentioned, Hogrefe’s Mattie is captivating from the moment the lights go up, channeling every emotion imaginable as she’s hit with multiple revelations throughout the course of the evening; Lanson offers a charming Max, who compels you to empathize and understand his struggle, especially in the show’s final moments; Russo–whose performance takes quite the unexpected turn in its own right–simply couldn’t be more delightful as Mattie’s bestie, Gunther–and Spencer Aste’s Manfred is just so darn powerful–his affective delivery conveys his genuine care for his daughter and his family’s legacy through his actions. Major props, too, to set designer Tim McMath, who does a lot with just a single set in a small space, and sound designer John McKenna, who cleverly infuses the show with an authentic German feel during the occasional scene breaks.
And then, of course–to return to the subject of the writing, the crux around which this masterpiece revolves–there’s the meaning of the title. Now, obviously, one could take the literal meaning–Max, the “maybe” in question, never really “fell” for Mattie or Rebecca, and spends the majority of the play waffling between staying with either one amidst the multiple discoveries that are revealed.
But, in my opinion, it takes two to make or break a relationship… and with her unwillingness to commit to either Max or Gunther, Mattie’s just as much of a “maybe” as is her other half. With her past history of abortion and attempted suicide, it’s easy to understand why she takes multiple trips to that window ledge throughout the course of the play, on the verge of jumping before she’s talked out of it.
But again, while she certainly has enough reason to feel like falling–and true, her life is not necessarily stable and hangs in the balance, especially at play’s end–she doesn’t, in fact, fall at all (as the title suggests). She’s damaged, for sure… but in not falling, she shows us she’s not fully destroyed. And with enough inner strength to know the fight is worth fighting. For her baby. For her friendship/relationship/whatever she’s got going on with Gunther. And for herself.
No doubt it’ll be hard–she does spend the play’s final moments alone onstage and in tears–but she’s giving the audience a sense of hope that, despite major hardships, everything’s going to be okay. And believe me, it’s a message we could all use right about now. I mean, if Mattie can do it, why can’t we?
Maybe Never Fell, written by Howard Meyer, plays at Pleasantville’s Axial Theatre (8 Sunnyside Avenue) through Sunday, November 20th. For tickets and more information, please visit axialtheatre.org.
Matt Smith is a writer and regular contributor to The Inside Press. For further information or inquiry, please visit www.mattsmiththeatre.com