Death in the Theater: Everybody & Wakey, Wakey
By Barbara & Scott Siegel
With the recent passing of the Signature Theatre’s James Houghton, the company he founded – and some of the people he left behind – have turned their artistic efforts into a contemplation of death. Lest this sound unduly morbid, the fact is that Everbody and Wakey Wakey, both at the Signature Theatre, essentially approach the idea of death in terms of how one lives his or her own life before the inevitable end.
Everybody, Branden Jacobs-Jenkin’s wonderfully theatrical and thoroughly inclusive new play inspired by the 15th Century morality play Everyman, would, on the surface of it, be the last play most people would rush out to see. Death, after all, is not an audience-pleasing subject. But the combination of a hot playwright, a rave NY Times review, and the playful, not-yet-overdone, novelty of having the actors play different roles at each performance (based on a simple lottery system), have turned Everybody into an unlikely hit.
Smartly directed by Lila Neugebauer, our protagonist — whichever actor is chosen at that performance – has been chosen to die. Not wanting to die alone, our doomed here/heroine begs friends and kin (also personified by fellow actors) to come along. Naturally, they find all sorts of excuses to demur. In fact, even his/her senses abandon our protagonist. Only two things will go to the grave with Everbody. But you’ll have to see the play to find out what they are — unless you possess the wisdom to guess what they are.
The night we saw the play, Brooke Bloom was chosen to play Everybody, and her performance was so extraordinary that it was hard to imagine why the director would ever want anyone else to play the role. Even so, the ensemble was very strong and one can’t help wondering what the play would be like the next night when all of the roles were played by different actors in the cast. And, of course, that’s exactly what they want.
As big and elaborate — complete with giant puppets — as Everybody is, its counterpart across the Signature lounge, Will Eno’s Wakey, Wakey, is a small and delicate play that packs a powerful intellectual punch. A beautifully acted two-person play with Michael Emerson as its principal (and inspired) performer, Wakey, Wakey is a profound work. It largely takes place as a monologue during the last moments of a man’s life, appropriately named Guy, because he is, indeed, just a guy – an everyman – who sits, in a wheelchair, on the precipice of death.
And death does come to Guy, but not before he has expressed, in sweet understatement, the simple joy of living, or should we say, the joy of simply living. Either way, or both ways, Will Eno’s deft accomplishments as both writer and director of this breathtaking piece of theater (pun intended), continues to mark him as one of our great young playwrights.
Together, these two very different plays about death, each a highpoint in the respective careers of their playwrights, are posthumous salutes to the nurturing spirit of the man who created the theater in which these two plays live.