by Samuel L. Leiter
It’s not till near the end of William Donnelly’s No Wake that the playwright clarifies the meaning of his title; by then, sleepy theatregoers at this lugubrious 90-minute effort will have come up with alternative interpretations. Originally produced in 2010 and subsequently seen elsewhere, Donnelly’s three-hander is now getting its New York premiere in the intimate, black box space at 59E59 Theaters by the Route 66 Theatre Company. The long wait wasn’t worth the effort.
Set at a seaside inn, the play assembles a trio of characters in their mid-forties: Rebecca (Tricia Small); her boorish new husband, a mustached Brit named Roger Padgett (Tim Ransom); and Rebecca’s ex, the depressed Edward Nolan (Stef Tovar, Route 66’s artistic director).
The first ones we meet are the men, drinking in the inn’s tavern. As the veddy British Padgett gets progressively drunker, they dribble bits of exposition that reveal who they are and why they’re there. Meanwhile, Nolan fights on the phone with his girlfriend, who’s upset she wasn’t asked along.
The reason for the gathering is the funeral of Sukey, Rebecca and Nolan’s grown daughter, who drowned herself nearby; no wake (that title, again) will be held, we’re told, because Catholic suicides don’t get them.
Rebecca and Nolan, who get to spend a lot of time together in the latter’s room, hash over the past that brought them to this pass, especially their guilty thoughts on why Sukey—who there’s no reason to believe wasn’t loved and cared for—hated them. It’s a poignant and not uncommon dilemma but one for which Donnelly doesn’t provide much insight.
Meanwhile, the unexpected proximity of the former spouses and the sharing of their mutual grief (expressed in terms that seem more like reactions to a disappointing occurrence than a tragic one) leads to intimate behavior that stirs Padgett’s jealousy; it even incites a fist fight in Nolan’s room that morphs into a chat about workout tips.
This stuff is obviously intended for comic relief, but, like the old-fashioned John L. Sullivan fisticuffs stance taken by Padgett (Ned Mochel staged the fight) when it starts, it’s an uncomfortable fit with what precedes and follows it.
It seems to take forever for the play’s rambling dialogue to bring its crises into focus. And, despite the play’s seven-year history, it still contains a moment of distracting implausibility when Nolan, praised by Rebecca for being so knowledgeable (as when he points out that a cruise vessel is a ship and not a boat), is stumped when Padgett asks him if he knows what a cuckold is. I doubt many people in the small audience would have flunked that one.
Too much of Veronica Brady’s direction keeps the intensity accelerator somewhere between tedious and plodding, despite occasional outbursts of (to me) inexplicable laughter. Perhaps a more magnetic cast might have drawn out the play’s emotional truths better than this one.
Tovar’s guilt-racked Nolan comes closest to creating someone both real and stageworthy, but Ransom’s Padgett is rather bland and Small’s Rebecca so dull you wonder what the men are fighting over.
The unit set, by Tom Buderwitz, helps not at all, with unadorned, two-tone walls painted in the dreariest of institutional colors. Michael Mullen’s ordinary costumes only make the characters look more ordinary; Rebecca wears a nice black number early on but one she later dons shouldn’t have left the thrift shop.
At the end of No Wake a question hangs in the air about the characters’ futures. And perhaps also for audience members engaged by Donnelly’s play. For me, though, it sailed on, leaving no wake in its path.
Photos: Carol Rosegg
59E59 Theaters/Theater C
59 E. 59th St., NYC
Through October 15