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Latter Days

Theatre Review by Howard Miller - February 24, 2017

Tony Torn and Will Dagger
Photo by Christopher Genovese

A self-proclaimed king, attended to by a single subject, has not stepped away from his throne for 11 years. All this time, he has been living on coffee and bananas while patiently awaiting the Apocalypse. That is the premise of Latter Days, an absurdist play by Ben Beckley that is strong on form but less so on substance, now having its premiere production at Theater 511.

As portrayed by Tony Torn, "The King," as he is known, resembles nothing less than a living exhibit of outsider folk art, draped in found articles of clothing and other various bits of debris. Thus attired, he is perched regally upon his "throne," a discarded and non-functioning toilet in which he keeps his supply of bananas and his thermos. A large chalk circle surrounds him on the floor, designed to keep him protected, or, perhaps, imprisoned like one of Samuel Beckett's trapped characters. He is waiting faithfully, if not for Godot then surely for God.

We do not see any of this for several long minutes, however, as the play opens in darkness. We only hear The King's voice coming from the stage, declaiming in heightened language worthy of a Shakespearean soliloquy: "We within Ourself hold greater Truth, and where the world is blind, Our eyes can see."

As it turns out, his (and our) plunge into darkness is not a sign of the approaching end of days, but rather the result of a blown fuse, hastily repaired by Dead Bill (Will Dagger), The King's loyal follower who spends his days out in the world and his nights in the "throne room." When the lights come up, they reveal that the place where the two are holed up is a dingy basement, the floor covered in discarded banana peels and coffee cups and the brick walls covered in chalk marks indicating the days, months, and years that have passed since their vigil began.

Much of the hour-long play revolves around the rituals and routines The King and Dead Bill go through each day. The King has developed a series of shortcuts to bypass discussion, and he uses various tongue clicks to indicate when Dead Bill should hand him his coffee or spread ointment on his sores or pass him the slop bucket. Just before midnight each day, an alarm goes off and Dead Bill makes another chalk mark on the wall. As the days go by and the pre-ordained end of the world looms ever nearer, The King starts to get paranoid about his "enemies," fearful that his hiding place might be discovered before he is able to fulfill his destiny.

Their conversations, rather restricted due to The King's adherence to the language of prophecies and religious aphorisms ("Faith by faith sustains itself, and not by fact") are beginning to raise some doubts in Dead Bill's mind. When the appointed time comes and goes without incident, Dead Bill finally releases himself from the vigil and walks away, leaving The King to face the play's ambiguous ending alone.

There is no faulting the excellent performances of the two actors, or of Jess Chayes's direction. And Carolyn Mraz's dank basement set, Derek Wright's lighting, and Kate Fry's costumes contribute nicely to the overall atmosphere. Yet Latter Days feels sketchy, like an academic exercise in dramatic writing that combines Elizabethan phrasing with the theatrically absurd planes of existence of Beckett and Ionesco. There simply isn't enough context to sustain what is essentially an allegorical tale about the fanatically obsessed leading the gullible.

Latter Days
Through March 11
Theater 511, 511 West 54th Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: OvationTix

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