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Will Eno’s plays tend to live more in his characters’ minds than in any experiences we witness them going through, which means you get out of them more or less what you’re willing to put in. That’s very much the case with Wakey, Wakey, the playwright’s latest existential inquiry, which recalls Eno’s 2005 breakout work, Thom Pain (based on nothing), in its audacious minimalism, its fusillade of thoughts both eloquent and incomplete, and its freighted ellipses. But if that earlier monologue was about the disparity between what life promises and delivers, this unexpectedly affecting (almost) two-character piece tempers the sorrow with an acknowledgement of the joys we accumulate along the way.
The hook that reels us into this abstruse, tricky, stream-of-consciousness contemplation of mortality is a beautiful performance from Michael Emerson as the unnamed main character, an everyman who wakes disoriented as the stage lights come up, and asks: “Is it now? I thought I had more time.” The two men in Eno’s 2012 play, The Realistic Joneses, struggled to cope as their bodies and minds began shutting down from a rare degenerative neurological disease. It becomes gradually evident here that Emerson’s character suffers from a similar affliction, albeit at a far more advanced stage. As with most people waiting to die, time has become a key fixation for him.
Listed as Guy in the program, the protagonist addresses the audience from a wheelchair on a stage largely empty aside from a heap of taped-up cartons and a jumble of clothing on the floor, suggesting preparations for a move. At first establishing a chatty, teasing rapport, he waves a hand at the mess that surrounds him and indicates, “This is all from before.” Referring to a whole other world, he adds: “The secret plans and ideas of people who time ran out on.”
Death figures emphatically from early on in his broken ramblings and digressions, but there’s also a sense of playfulness as he regales us with seemingly contradictory words of advice or homespun philosophy to help us on the long journey to our deathbeds: “Push yourself a little, and go easy on yourself, a little. Time is your friend and time is your enemy.”
He uses cue cards, slides and video to reflect on memories and associations, both personal and general, in what plays like a kind of improvised TED Talk about preparing for the end. If that sounds downbeat, you clearly haven’t seen the riotous montage of screaming animals (plus Luciano Pavarotti) that our guide shares before musing on what happens to the sudden bursts of pleasure such entertainments provide. Do they attach themselves to our brains and bones or simply evaporate? No less uplifting, if you go with it, is a guided group exercise in which we mentally picture someone who loved or encouraged us, living or dead, and give private thanks.
In such moments you wonder whether this is more of an inspirational seminar or a play. In fact it’s a little of both and neither. “We’re not here to mope, right?” insists Guy. “We’re here to listen to music and drink some grape juice, maybe get a free T-shirt. We’re here to say goodbye, of course — there’s always someone or something to say goodbye to, and it’s important to honor the people whose shoulders we stood upon and fell asleep against.”
More than with any American playwright since Edward Albee, language is the key tool in Eno’s theatrical arsenal. But as much as his words in this production, which he also directed, it’s the cracks that start to show, almost imperceptibly, in the cheerful manner of Emerson’s character that make his arc so moving. The trembling hands, the signs of fatigue and breathlessness, the look of embarrassment crashing into despair as he momentarily loses the thread.
Shaping a performance of such intricate layering out of a character about whom we learn very little — he was a swimming and diving instructor, beloved by the kids he taught and by their parents — is no simple feat. Pain and solace, loss and gratitude; contradictory feelings collide like bumper cars in the physically diminished man addressing us from the stage while we watch with increasing distress as frailty tightens its grip and he grows steadily more distant.
That process acquires additional degrees of poignancy once a second character enters, a care-worker named Lisa, played by January LaVoy with an unerring balance between calm professional detachment and soothing comfort. But the undisputed main event is Emerson’s performance, a marvel of sly humor and subtle exposure, alive with rippling depths of sorrow and warming currents of bliss.
While the thematic richness of Wakey, Wakey creeps up on you during its brief 75-minute run time, few will make the claim that this is a major addition to Eno’s distinctive body of work. (My favorite remains his 2010 play Middletown, in which the writer’s gift for quotidian poetry, and for locating moments of happiness amid despair, found a gorgeous echo chamber in his response to Thornton Wilder.) Eno’s new play also feels somewhat slender following just a few months after Adam Bock’s A Life, a less overtly brainy, more experiential consideration of mortality, piloted by a performance of shattering honesty from David Hyde Pierce.
Nevertheless, Eno’s unique voice — quizzical, perceptive, assertively compassionate — is one to be celebrated. And celebration (with penguins, a disco ball, a blast of psychedelic pop from The Olivia Tremor Control and party favors!) provides the appropriate closing note for this strange and beguiling little play.
Theater insiders have wondered if Wakey, Wakey is a gesture from Eno to James Houghton, the founding artistic director of Signature Theatre, where this play is being presented and where Eno is part of a residency playwrights program. Houghton died last August after a two-year illness. Whether or not there’s an intended connection, the work is a fitting continuation of his legacy.
Venue: Pershing Square Signature Center, New York
Cast: Michael Emerson, January LaVoy
Director-playwright: Will Eno
Set designer: Christine Jones
Costume designer: Michael Krass
Lighting designer: David Lander
Sound designer: Nevin Steinberg
Projection designer: Peter Nigrini
Presented by Signature Theatre
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