Tuesday, February 28, 2017

143. Review: WAKEY, WAKEY (seen February 25, 2017)

“Dying Man Talking”

Will Eno’s Wakey, Wakey is an idiosyncratic, essentially plotless, seriocomic, elliptical, but heartfelt rumination on mortality. It’s about a guy named Guy (Michael Emerson) who sits in a wheelchair and rambles—no other word for it—in a casual, gently humorous way, on issues of life and death. As Guy offers his insights—sometimes vaguely, sometimes specifically, sometimes melancholically, and sometimes jokingly—we guess he must be in some sort of hospice and that he’s dying. 

Around three-quarters of the way through, Guy’s caretaker, Lisa (touchingly played by January LaVoy), a beautiful, chicly dressed (costumes by Michael Krass), woman, enters. With angelic grace and patience, she attends to his needs as he slowly passes. We should all be so lucky.
January LaVoy, Michael Emerson. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Then all heaven breaks loose in a joyous montage of stills and home movies (projection design by Peter Nigrini), bubbles, balloons, disco lighting, and rock music, after which the audience partakes of refreshments in the lobby outside the Signature’s Alice Griffin Jewel Box Theatre at the Pershing Square Signature Center. Could this upbeat, wake-like gathering be the reason for the play’s unusual title, reportedly arrived at only after an extended period when the play went nameless in its ads? (The Internet reports there's an unrelated 2012 movie called Wakey Wakey and an album titled Wakey! Wakey! And just today I passed this similarly named place off Sunrise Highway in Valley Stream. Go know.)
Photo: Samuel L. Leiter
It’s hard not to see in Wakey, Wakey echoes of an Eno idol, Samuel Beckett—Krapp’s Last Tape comes to mind—and perhaps its title is meant as a subliminal nod to James Joyce, Beckett’s mentor. The highly lauded Eno, however, for all his convention-bending dramaturgy (The Realistic Joneses, Open House), is no Beckett or Joyce. He has a gift for unusual situations and quirkily delightful dialogue, and he knows how to get laughs with verbal surprises, but in Wakey, Wakey, he offers little new or revelatory about the human condition. And, while conflict is a standard ingredient in most plays, you won’t find much, if any, of it here.

Guy’s environment, designed by Christine Jones and tenderly lit by David Lander, suggests a combination of the real and the surreal with its stageful of cartons and discarded clothing, signifying, perhaps, the abandoned remnants of a human life; upstage is a tall, unadorned wall, with yet another freestanding wall—one with a door—right behind it. The first wall serves as a screen for numerous images, many from Guy’s life (the childhood photos and videos could very well be of Emerson himself), which he controls via a small remote.
Michael Emerson, January LaVoy. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Although no explanation is given of who the audience is intended to be and why Guy is talking to it, it appears he’s improvising his own eulogy, his last words, so to speak; very little about his life, though, is revealed (the most specific thing, perhaps, being that he was a swimming and diving coach), and we never learn what caused his physical condition. For all his charm and wittiness, he’s an Everyman abstraction (like his name), and he’s here to get some philosophical odds and ends about life and death off his chest before he vanishes through that looming door.  

Much of Guy’s commentary is inspired by the notes on a pack of index cards he rifles through, discarding some, trying to recall what he meant on others, and expanding on ideas from yet others in an almost stream-of-consciousness meditation. Numerous sound effects (top-notch work from sound designer Nevin Steinberg), both realistic and abstract, weave through the discourse, showing the great care the production has taken to fill out the slender script with all the tools at the theatre’s disposal.
Michael Emerson. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Although wheelchair-bound, Guy’s still ambulatory, if shaky, and makes a joke about it when he first rises and says, “I can walk!” like someone in a movie weepie who’s overcome his handicap. With occasional meta-references (he kids about the show’s length, for example), and sometimes directly addressing particular audience members, he contemplates such things as the need to appreciate life while we live it, the implications of time (“Time is your friend and time is your enemy”), speaks of the need for “joy and light” in the face of death, what it is to be human, and how people respond to the approach of highly expected events, like the imminence of death.

He asks us to participate in certain exercises, such as to remember and pay tribute to significant persons in our lives (it’s rumored that the late James Houghton, a mentor of Eno’s, was the play’s inspiration) and tells us not to take life for granted. In a sense, Wakey, Wakey resembles a riff on Emily Webb’s monologue in Our Town, a brief speech I confess moves me more than Eno's hour and 15-minute play.

Happily, Michael Emerson, under the careful direction of Eno himself (Beckett also directed his own work) does a superb job in delivering Guy’s lines with a grounded, friendly, wryly humorous quality that makes you hang on every word, even if you don’t always know precisely what he means. Now and then he alludes to his physical suffering, taking a moment or two to recover, or touches on his failing memory, but his passing is a relatively comfortable one many of us might wish were ours when the time comes.

As Wakey, Wakey moves inexorably toward its anticipated conclusion (climax is too animated a word), its unhurried pace slows . . . to . . . a . . . crawl, making its title seem a misreading for Wake Me, Wake Me. Its acting and production elements score highly, but while some visitors will certainly be touched others are likely to find Wakey, Wakey  too wishy-washy for their tastes.


Pershing Square Signature Center/Alice Griffin Jewel Box Theatre
480 W. 42nd St., NYC
Through March 26