Richard Maxwell is the least hysterical of doomsday prophets. Leave it to other science fiction fantasists to conjure the heaving frenzies of wars and purges, invasions and explosions.
Probably the most complete American theater auteur of his generation, Maxwell is most interested in the calm that follows and transcends the annihilating storm. He asks us to listen to the thoughts that emerge in the silence of the morning after. What he hears is not necessarily a cause for despair.
In the hypnotic “Queens Row,” which opened on Wednesday at the Kitchen, Maxwell envisions an American tomorrow that confirms many of the darkest fears of today. A civil war has taken place. And its causes, as explained with a cool matter-of-factness, have an alarming ring of inevitability.
We are told how “nationalism” was “appropriated to each side and devolved into tribalism and into smaller spheres past even lover, family and self.” There were riots, fueled by an economic drought — and by “racism, xenophobia, foreign influence, class anger, and a simmering paranoia” — combined with a pervasive distrust of all forms of government.
The nameless woman who describes this devolution, and the violence that it spawned, is a figure of uncanny centeredness. Played by Nazira Hanna, she exudes what might be called a passionate dispassion. “I relate what happened and let you draw your own conclusions,” she says. “I find it vulgar to compel you toward any sympathies.”
That might be regarded as the both the dynamic and credo of Maxwell’s art. Throughout more than two decades of experimental play making, during which he has become an august presence in international theater, he has aspired to almost Olympian neutrality. His plays have depicted all sorts of archetypes in classically extreme situations — boxers and adulterers, cops and crooks, lonesome cowboys and wandering knights — with an air of deadpan detachment.
In recent years, he has focused on mortality, in both a personal and general sense, with works of elegant distillation and subtraction. His quietly stunning “Paradiso” moved from reflections on the death of his mother to a vision of a world without human existence.
Paradoxically, that piece registered less as a work of lamentation than of affirmation. The same might be said of “Queens Row,” which is ultimately a portrait not of what is lost when a world ends, but of what remains.
First staged last year at London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts, “Queens Row” is made up of three monologues. Each is performed by a different, charismatically self-contained woman, who stands on a small, circular plinth, in the middle of a rough and naked room, to tell her story.
We begin with Hanna’s character, a longtime Muslim resident of the Massachusetts town that gives the play its title. She speaks of her life after the war and of the killing of her son, who had moved to Texas in search of work.
The second woman (Antonia Summer) addresses a lover who, it gradually emerges, is now dead. Her monologue is more elliptical and more interior than that of the first speaker. The third woman (Soraya Nabipour, in an electrically stylized performance) talks in spasmodic shards that at first sound like some arcane code.
How these women are connected emerges by degrees. So does a creeping awareness that the play has been moving forward chronologically, although the ways by which we have traditionally measure time no longer apply in this fragmented world.
The three speeches trace a path toward ever greater uprootedness, itineracy and disconnection. The solid, if poisoned, social and economic order — and the historical consciousness behind it — of the first monologue has by the time we meet the third speaker evaporated into endless, obscuring night. (Sascha van Riel lighting gives astonishing visual life to this sense of a world out of joint.)
And yet — and it is a very big yet — a sense of defiant achievement, of victory here, is conveyed through the very presence of these three, variously articulate figures. They are, after all, alive. As Hanna’s character says, “I remain; an unverified, unauthenticated person. I am born, therefore I am free. That’s the only defense or proof one needs.”
Ultimately, “Queens Row” is a testament to the forms of faith — from the eloquently religious to the more inchoate and instinctive — that allow human beings to endure amid unspeakable loss and privation.
That summing up would probably be too sentimental for Maxwell, who carefully resists the clichés of uplift and consolation. It’s true that his women are all so irrevocably solitary you feel that they could be devoured by the shadows at any moment.
But it’s not darkness in which we end the show. Or not unconditional darkness, anyway. The production ends with a sly concluding vision of ineffable beauty, in which slender columns of light slice through the pitch blackness. They’re barely perceptible, but they’re there. They almost feel like hope.
Tickets Through Jan. 25 at The Kitchen, Manhattan; 212-255-5793, thekitchen.org. Running time: 1 hour.