“One day, fat families and skinny families alike will read my poetry,” predicts Max Stravinsky (Bryce Pinkham DRA ’08), the lead canine character in the Yale Cabaret’s “Max Out Loud.”
“Max” was adapted for the stage by Mattie Brickman DRA ’09 from three children’s books written by Maira Kalman, a famous New Yorker cover illustrator. Because it copies from work meant for school children, the play is often chaotic and disorienting, like the mind of a child. But this sense of imagination allows the show to have a sense of unencumbered fun not often encountered in performances intended for an adult audience.
The show opens with Max describing his life in New York as a dog poet, who longs to go to Paris. After his agent sells his poetry book for a million dollars, Max can finally purchase a plane ticket to his beloved dream city. While in Paris, Max falls in love with fellow poet, musician and Dalmatian Crepes Suzette, played by “Max” songwriter Sarah Pickett DRA ’08. Another call from his editor reveals that a “big cheese” producer in Hollywood wants Max to write a film screenplay. It is here, in Tinseltown, that Max begins to lose his poetic muse and becomes more and more egotistical. Without spoiling the play’s denouement, there is a happy ending, although audience members may come away wanting a more definitive, meaningful conclusion.
The transitions between scenes can be rough and confusing, but the musical’s strength comes less from its plot and more from its delightfully rendered individual scenes. Director Michael Walkup DRA ’09 attempted to have the stage emulate Kalman’s illustrations, so that each scene appears as an image pulled from the page of a book. This copycat effect results in many memorable moments, such as when the Parisian streets, walls and cars are literally covered with poetry, but it can also lead to mental vertigo, such as the over-the-top musical number “Mad, Mad Party.”
Most of the play’s script comes directly from Kalman’s literature, as seen in the show’s many humorous one-liners. One of the funniest moments is when Max and Crepes profess their love for one another, and the dog poet can only say that he wants to feel his Dalmatian lover’s “hotty spotty body.”
The writing rarely becomes philosophical or thematically moving, although at times it comes close. After his French-speaking teacher leaves on the excuse that she has recently fallen in love and cannot concentrate, Max stares bewildered into the audience before exclaiming “What a love-sick town!”
The show’s songs heavily rely on rhythm and repetition, with toe-tapping numbers throughout. There are no show-stoppers, and none of the actors are given opportunity to reveal any singing talent they might have, but the show’s fast-paced, almost rap-like song delivery will keep audience members laughing and jiving the whole time.
The play’s four actors marvelously portray a wide variety of 70 characters. Max is the show’s only persistent persona, so that the other three actors have to take on the roles of 23 minor characters apiece, with an average of one new character introduced every minute. Remembering “who’s who” onstage might give some audience members headaches, but the wittily stereotyped personas — such as Leon the agent, who munches on a cigar-like carrot — and the rhymed names — such as “Bruno from the studio” or “Spitz from the Ritz” — make each one distinct.
Although Pinkham is a less impressive lead than expected, the play’s secondary performers are indeed the highlight of the show. Each new minor character becomes a joy to behold, and the audience soon expects consistent moments of playful humor from their interaction. Especially memorable is the performance of Nicholas Carrière, who plays everything from Bruno the painter of invisible canvases to Pierre Potpourri the stereotypically French owner of Paris’s “Ze Crazy Wolf” poetry jam club.
Theatergoers who like shows with easily comprehensible plots and characters should not come to see “Max.” At times the show’s schizophrenic actors and wild scene changes require the audience to do too much mental shuffling in order to make sense of it all. This show also does not take itself too seriously, so Yalies wanting a performance filled with meaning and pathos should go elsewhere.