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Wakey, Wakey

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - February 27, 2017

January LaVoy and
Michael Emerson
Photo by Joan Marcus

I'd love to tell you what Wakey, Wakey, which just opened at the Pershing Square Signature Center, is about, but it ain't easy. I can tell you what Will Eno's play seems to think it's about, judging by what's onstage in this Signature Theatre production: life, death, and how we proceed from the former to the latter. But as with so many of Eno's plays, what makes sense on paper makes nonsense in practice, with whatever points it might have the potential to make crushed beneath the weight of its creator's enforced artifice. That it's his best play since his New York breakthrough, Thom Pain (based on nothing), 12 years ago is all but irrelevant: How much should any artist be praised for fulfilling the bare minimum of the challenges he sets for himself?

This is an accomplishment worthy of note. In Thom Pain, Eno introduced a structure and writing style that intentionally confused deeply focused character writing with verbal free association, and it worked in that outing, a self-pitying, self-flagellating, borderline-satiric bio show about a man no one (including himself) would consider worthy of having one. But if Thom's verbal and emotional misdirection, which jolted in the way explained its speaker's inexplicable psyche, was a near-perfect mating of form and function, it instantly became gimmicky when Eno deployed it with few substantive alterations in Middletown ("about" riffing on Our Town), Title and Deed ("about" European real estate), The Open House ("about" American real estate), and The Realistic Joneses ("about" terminal illness).

Wakey, Wakey is not unburdened with such lazy detritus, which echoes more the unique voice of its writer (and, here, director) than whoever is supposed to be uttering it. The figure before us this time is Guy (Michael Emerson), a late-fiftysomething or early-sixtysomething in a wheelchair. He plows his way through the typical litany of interchangeable Eno bits:

After slowly pointing at someone in the audience: "Sorry, that came off as sort of menacing. I just meant it as a reminder. A friendly reminder that, what? A reminder that some day, perhaps, when you least expect it, someone in a theater is going to point at you."

At a lull in his speech: "A joke would be good, right around here. A joke would be so funny right now." (He sits silently.)

When a siren is heard outside: "They're coming for you, but what are they coming to do? It's all coming, and at very high speed, but is it good news or bad? If you don't know the answer, I won't ruin it for you."

Completing a discussion of influential people in our lives: "We have a very special guest joining us tonight. I'm sure you were all expecting something like this so, without further ado, because I know our guest needs no introduction." (No one comes out.)

And so on. (Oh, and "spoiler," he doesn't need the wheelchair. He can walk around just fine.)

Emerson does everything he can with this. His gentle manner is ingratiating, going a long way to convince us that Guy is both stuck inside his own head but in tune with us. And he charts a nice slow fade as the man's faculties call themselves more and more into question; the early ebullient figure is nothing like the wary, weary one we're spending time with later on. It's as fine and thoughtful a portrayal as Guy could receive.

The shtick gets tiresome quickly, though. Not because it's not funny—it probably is if you've never seen another Eno play—but because it ignores the reality of this specific world. Neither Eno the writer nor Eno the director bothers to establish where you are—the set (by Christine Jones) variously recalls a theater, an old-age home, a hospital, and a living room mid-move—so you end up nowhere, a convoluted conglomeration of ideas that doesn't whisper something so much as scream nothing straight into your ear. Good though he is, Emerson can't fight everything he's up against to erect a full human being. The individual components don't exist for that.

Around its edges, however, Wakey, Wakey evinces more discipline than Eno has displayed in years. It's overlain with a resigned sadness about aging and decaying, and what seems to be a genuine, and genuinely felt, exhortation to make the best of the time you have, in whatever way you have it. (It's treated as a parodic gag, of course, but you can't have everything.) This is accentuated further when a woman named Lisa joins Guy about halfway through. Good luck determining who she is (a family member? a nurse? an angel of mercy? the physical manifestation of writer fiat?), but in any event, she provides a necessary anchor of sensitivity along Guy's final passage to... whatever comes next. It helps that the actress playing her, January Lavoy, is superb: blissfully understated, intensely focused, and totally naturalistic, an avatar of our world in one that, otherwise, we wouldn't be able to recognize.

Bringing the action down to Earth imbues the evening with something vaguely resembling real feeling, which persists until close to the end of the play. At that point, Eno spins it off into a exhaustingly familiar and less-thoughtful direction. Your reaction to what happens will depend entirely on whether you buy what he's selling and how he's selling it; I found the justification, if comprehensible, tenuous at best. Regardless, you can't think too much about any of this. Emerson appears so young and robust in physicality as well as speech, and you have to contend with that gag of him demonstrating how disabled Guy isn't, that none of the final "slow march to mortality" plot developments make a lick of sense anyway.

The message of so many of Eno's plays is "you have to take what you can get," so this approach is ultimately not a surprise. But in both what it contains and what it is, Wakey, Wakey serves as a hopeful reminder that life often nests just where you least expect it. If it can show up in Eno's moribund oeuvre, it could just as easily be anywhere.

Wakey, Wakey
Through March 26
Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 West 42nd Street
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