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There are few success stories more gratifying than writer-director Richard Maxwell’s. During the early 1990s he toiled in semiobscurity with the Cook County Theater Department, living and working in a near-south-side loft with a committed band of avant-garde pranksters who weren’t afraid to let the ridiculous overshadow the sublime: for the climax of their inexplicable production of The Wizard of Oz, Cook County cofounder Gary Wilmes leaped from the loft’s second-story fire escape onto a pile of boxes in the alley below, stripped off all his clothes, and ran naked for several blocks. Maxwell’s plays, full of quotidian tasks and dulled speech, were performed in the deadpan, seemingly amateurish style that made Cook County such a controversial company; I heard many an actor complain that their work was simply empty. It seemed audiences and theater folk here never knew what to make of Maxwell, and near the end of the decade he made a fortuitous move to New York, where he fell in with a downtown art crowd that embraced the highly stylized illogic of Richard Foreman and the Wooster Group. In almost no time Entertainment Weekly had named Maxwell one of the “100 most creative people in entertainment.” Next weekend he returns to town, under the auspices of Performing Arts Chicago, with the New York City Players to stage Boxing 2000, a play as idiosyncratic as anything produced during his Cook County years. The story–an aspiring young boxer is torn between the demands of an opportunistic promoter and a long-suffering girlfriend–is at once a parody of urban tragedies and a heartfelt exploration of doomed ambition. It’s hard to imagine how Maxwell’s minimalist style–actors rarely move, gesture, or raise their voices–will come across on the Athenaeum’s huge stage, but at least his work is finally getting the attention here it’s long deserved. Athenaeum Theatre, main stage, 2936 N. Southport, 773-722-5463 or 312-902-1500. Opens Thursday, January 24, 7:30 PM. Through January 27: Friday-Saturday, 8 PM; Sunday, 4 PM. $20.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Michael Schmelling.