'Letters From Max' review — a poetic meditation on friendship and grief

Read our four-star review of Sarah Ruhl's Letters From Max, starring Jessica Hecht, Ben Edelman, and Zane Pais, which runs off Broadway through March 19.

Gillian Russo
Gillian Russo

In 2011, playwright Sarah Ruhl accepted a young poet named Max Ritvo into her playwriting class at Yale. In 2016, Ritvo died of a relapse of Ewing's sarcoma, a pediatric cancer. In between, the two forged a deep bond built on a shared appreciation for each other's curiosity, intellect, and warmth. Ruhl immortalized their exchanges in the epistolary memoir Letters From Max, and she builds on that work with her new play of the same name, a flesh-and-blood tribute to her late friend.

Letters From Max is the kind of play you're glad also exists in book form. Ruhl jam-packs her script with poems, letters, texts, and conversations between herself and Ritvo that invite deep reflection long after the show ends. What's unique to the production at Signature Theatre, though, are loving performances and seamless stage design.

S Katy Tucker's projections of the pair's writing on Marsha Ginsberg's sleek, minimalist set give the impression that the most tangible things in Sarah and Max's world are their words. And in some ways, they are — writing is all they have to make sense of their love, fear, and grief.

The actors, directed lovingly by Kate Whoriskey, poignantly inhabit all these. They're not so much exact imitations of Ruhl and Ritvo as they are interpreters of their emotional journeys. Nonetheless, the characters are named Sarah and Max, with the latter played by Ben Edelman and Zane Pais on alternating nights.

At my performance, Edelman brought charisma and swagger to Max, a perfect foil for Jessica Hecht's introspective Sarah. Pais was still on hand to play a few supporting roles and play live guitar music he composed himself. (When Pais is Max, Edelman does the same on the piano.)

The play does lack a certain sense of drive — after all, we know from the get-go how it ends. Perhaps, though, that's intentional. By moving us slowly and gently through Sarah and Max's five-year story, letting us take our time to absorb their poetic correspondences, Ruhl keeps Ritvo alive a little longer.

Letters From Max is at the Pershing Square Signature Center through March 19. Get Letters From Max tickets on New York Theatre Guide.

Photo credit: Jessica Hecht and Ben Edelman in Letters From Max. (Photo by Joan Marcus)

Originally published on

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