by Carol Rocamora
What’s this? A stand-up comedy routine? It can’t be …the actor is sitting in a wheel chair. Is he infirm? It’s uncertain . . . he rises for a moment and crosses the stage. Who is he? What does he want from us? And what is he talking about, anyway? He’s not making sense.
These and other questions cross one’s mind during the first half of Will Eno’s initially mysterious and ultimately deeply moving play, Wakey, Wakey, now receiving its world premiere at the Signature Theatre Center. Directed by the author himself, it features an actor delivering a mesmerizing monologue that plays with your mind and ultimately with your heart.
We first see Guy lying prostrate on the floor in his PJs. “Is it now?” he asks us. “I thought I’d have more time,” he says. Black-out, lights up, and now Guy (the excellent Michael Emerson) is in a wheelchair on an empty stage surrounded by boxes. “Hello, world,” he says, and launches into solo stream of consciousness, punctuated by non-sequitur cue cards pulled from his pockets and references to a large TV screen, which he occasionally activates to share random images with us (including a hilarious sequence of screaming animals and “Jumble” word games).
After 45 minutes, I thought: Ah, a variation of Krapp’s Last Tape, Beckett’s haunting monologue of a man looking back on his life. Or a sly Simon McBurney-style soliloquy on the meaning of existence.
But with the surprise entrance of another character (Lisa), the seeming randomness of his narrative adds up. Guy is dying. Lisa (played by a gentle January Lavoy) appears to be a kind of compassionate companion, a caregiver, a guide to the “other side”, a comforting Angel of Death. By now, we’ve bonded with the Guy (pun intended, I assume). He cares about us – and in turn we can’t help but care deeply about him. After apologizing for taking up our time, he says he won’t offer “last words”. Remember “first words” instead, is Guy’s parting advice in a play about death that ultimately celebrates life in both a profound and light-hearted way (I won’t spoil the joyous, revelatory last few moments).
If you’re familiar with the Signature Theatre Center and its unique dedication to playwrights, you can’t watch Wakey, Wakey without thinking of Jim Houghton, the theatre’s founder, and Edward Albee, one of the theatre’s writers, both of whom passed away this past year. Had the loss of Jim (who had such a great influence on Mr. Eno) inspired him to write this beautiful play about the joy of life? I had the unexpected good fortune of asking him directly in the lobby after the performance. Mr. Eno is a “Residency Five” Signature playwright, and Houghton was supposed to direct his final work. “I was thinking of Jim and Edward a lot as I worked on the play,” said Eno, “and people who are gone. But both those wonderful people were so insistent about the idea that a play has to move outward into the world, and not go backwards into mere biography, so I was very much thinking of audiences who might come to see it.”
Eno was also thinking of another sense of loss as he was writing the play – one that audience members might be feeling “after the first Monday in November,” as he deftly put it. “At the same time,” Eno continued, “I was also having amazing times with our daughter, first ice cream cone, first pony ride, first snow. I hope the play has the ratio and timeline right, in terms of sadness and good old kid-like joy.” (According to the program notes, the title – Wakey, Wakey – refers to an Irish wake and at the same time has the ring of a nursery rhyme, thereby fusing the polar feelings to which Eno refers).
More parting advice: be sure to linger in the lobby for the post- performance event (again, no spoiler). “Jim would have loved it,” Eno adds.
Wakey, Wakey. Through March 26 at the Pershing Square Signature Theatre Center (480 West 42nd Street between Ninth and Tenth Avenues). www.signaturetheater.org
Photos: Joan Marcus