By James Bartholomew
Writer and performer Max Stossel has a lot on his mind. Politics, gender, love, sapience, addictions to social media and pornography – just about every topic you don’t want coming up at your holiday dinner table is in abundance in his solo performance, “Max Stossel: Words That Move.” And while that vast breadth of topics and themes comes at the cost of some depth, “Words That Move” is a unique journey into the mind of the award‑winning poet and filmmaker.
The piece sees Mr. Stossel reciting several original poems, each delivered with passionately punctuated rhythm and staged with expressive detail. In between poems, Mr. Stossel provides elegant segues with amusing anecdotes and personal stories that give context and a chance to transition between subjects. A story about a conversation between a group of friends might suddenly begin to rhyme, and the words themselves start to flow in Mr. Stossel’s trademark lyrical stress patterns. The fluidity of it all helps ground the work, and makes for a poetry reading that’s both comfortable and private.
Much of that sense of warmth comes from Mr. Stossel himself, who keeps his poems from feeling rarified by peppering the show with humor and levity. After a weighty discussion of the acerbic divide in American politics, Mr. Stossel instructs his audience to rise and shake out the tension with a guided group massage session – an off‑the‑wall turn that lightens the mood while hammering home his point about the need for personal outreach in today’s discourse. Later, a love poem about the perfect geometry of circles is paired with a ballerina’s interpretive dance that centers the poem and the romantic purity of the poet’s subject. Far from being contrivances or distractions, these additions prove welcome deviations from the usual structure of the piece that fit snuggly with the relaxed and friendly tone that Mr. Stossel cultivates.
That loose comedic through‑line and affable styling give overall consistency to a show that otherwise lives or dies based on the quality of its poetry. It’s a clear benefit considering that some of Mr. Stossel’s offerings are stronger than others. In the aforementioned political poem, Mr. Stossel likens conservatives and liberals to opponents in a boxing match, a metaphor he gets decent mileage out of despite its longtime and commonplace usage in American media. In another poem he observes the ways that pornography objectifies women while in another, he celebrates the perspective gained from appreciating someone else’s point of view. Elsewhere, he suggests that social media affects the way our relationships play out, and points out that the physical stature of men could prove intimidating to women uncomfortable with their advances. These observations are certainly accurate and might be insightful to some, but in 2018, this brand of “wokeness” isn’t exactly breaking new ground. It’s far from derivative, but it’s all a bit too familiar.
While there’s little being said in “Words That Move” that’s particularly new or revelatory, the words themselves are striking enough to stay relevant and interesting. Each poem offers a fair amount of intricate wordplay, but the show’s rapid‑fire pace makes those gems fleeting and difficult to retain after an evening of similarly styled pieces. Ironically, this makes “Words That Move” a show whose best lines are much harder to remember than the spectacle of the presentation.
Thankfully, the charisma of its performer keeps the show from flirting with pretention. Although somewhat lacking in lasting resonance, “Words That Move” is an endearing piece from a poet who knows how to entertain a room. The words might not end up moving you as far as you’d hope, but the trip itself is still worth taking.
“Max Stossel Live: Words That Move”
Performed by Max Stossel
Dec. 10 at 8pm, 2018
Photo: Mark Abramson
Cherry Lane Theatre
38 Commerce Street
New York City
JAMES BARTHOLOMEW is a writer and musician living in New York City. He is an administrator of the Fordham University Theatre Program and an avid lover of the arts.