24 March 2017

'Wakey, Wakey'

A dying man making an appearance in a theater?  Whoaaa!  That might well be your reaction—it was mine—when you twig to what Will Eno’s come up with in his new play Wakey, Wakey, having its world première at the Signature Theatre Company’s Pershing Square Signature Center on Theatre Row.  But don’t be put off by my very skeletal characterization: though it did seem to affect some spectators—a few, like the woman sitting in front of me, even profoundly—it’s not morbid or depressing.   Think Samuel Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape with humor.

Wakey, Wakey, Eno’s final production in his five-year, three-play stint as STC’s first graduating Residency Five playwright, started preview performances on 7 February in the company’s Alice Griffin Jewel Box Theatre, the small, 191-seat proscenium house, and opened on 27 February; after two extensions (from 19 and 26 March, respectively), the play’s scheduled to close now on 2 April.  My subscription partner, Diana, and I met at the Signature Center on Friday evening, 17 March, to see the 7:30 performance.

Eno, who also makes his stage-directing début with this production, has been represented at STC with Title and Deed, his freshman outing in his residency in 2012, and The Open House in 2014 (see my report on the latter play, 16 March 2014, which also includes a brief bio of the writer).  2014’s The Realistic Joneses was Eno’s Broadway début; his breakout play was 2005’s Thom Pain (based on nothing), a film version of which, co-directed by Eno, is currently in post-production.  A Helen Merrill Playwriting Fellow, Eno has also received many other accolades for his writing: he’s a 1996 Edward F. Albee Foundation Fellow and a 2004 Marian Seldes/Garson Kanin and Guggenheim Fellow; he was inducted into the Theater Hall of Fame in 2004; Thom Pain was nominated for the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for Drama; and he’s the recipient of the 2012 PEN/Laura Pels International Foundation for Theater Award.  In addition to the Pulitzer nomination, his plays have won numerous honors as well: Middletown won the Horton Foote Prize for Promising New American Play in 2010, Title and Deed received a Lucille Lortel Award nomination for Outstanding Solo Show in 2013, and The Open House won both the Lortel for Outstanding Play and the OBIE Award for Playwriting in 2014; also in 2014, the Drama Desk gave Eno a Special Award “For two extraordinary casts and one impressively inventive playwright” for The Open House (Off-Broadway) and The Realistic Joneses (Broadway).

Wakey, Wakey is inspired in part by Eno’s friendship with James Houghton, Signature’s late founder and a mentor to the playwright who died in August 2016 at age 57, and also the September 2016 death of playwright Edward Albee, a former writer-in-residence at STC who remained a loyal friend and supporter.  (“I was thinking of Jim and Edward a lot as I worked on the play,” Eno acknowledged to Theater Pizzazz cyber journalist Carol Rocamora.)  As Eno tells it, his third residency play “was supposed to be something else,” as his main character says of his presentation.  About a year before Houghton’s death, he and the playwright began texting back and forth about ideas for Eno’s last STC script.  “So, we started working on that play,” Eno relates in an interview, “and he was going to direct it and that was really exciting to me.”  But then Houghton went into the hospice where Eno spent a lot of time talking with his mentor while he was dying.  “And then Jim died on August 2nd,” said the dramatist, and he put aside “Jim’s play.”  “I started writing this thing a little while after,” Eno explained. 

The writer was thinking a lot about his friend and mentor while he wrote Wakey, Wakey, but, he insists, “it’s not a play about Jim.”  Eno adds, however, “I hope it’s a little bit with him, somehow.”  

He’s a guy who, I don’t know how to say this, but, he lived with such clarity and integrity and directness, and so you always knew where he stood, and if I’m thinking about something now, I feel like I have a good idea where Jim would stand on it, so it feels like the conversation continues.  I really hope this will feel like a thing that happened, not a play you went to.

What the playwright took from this experience was how Houghton “lived with more reality, on one hand, and more lightness, on the other,” even “in the last week of his life.”  Eno summed up his vision for Wakey, Wakey: “So all these things are qualities I hope—and again it’s not a play about Jim in a biographical way, at all—but I hope the play might have some of his personality.”  As the main character in Wakey, Wakey says, “It’s important to honor the people whose shoulders we stood upon.”

At preset, while the audience filters into the Griffin, Maurice Ravel’s “Boléro” is playing.  After the usual announcement about turning off phones and checking listening devices, the music switches to the theme music for the 1960’s-’70s TV show The Dating Game.  A recorded voice, the playwright-director’s I believe, comes up and repeats the customary announcement about cell phones and so on, and there’s a kind of rumination about children, accompanied by the voice of a little girl, possibly Eno’s own daughter (who’s just shy of 3), and a reference to eating a banana.  When the lights go down and come back up, a man in pajamas is sprawled face-down on the floor.  He lifts his head and asks, “Is it now?  I thought I had more time.”  Was he passed out?  Did he just wake up from a nap on the carpet?  The lights dim again.  A lighted sign admonishes: “NO APPLAUSE.”

When the lights return, the 60-ish man (Michael Emerson; TV’s Lost and Person of Interest, Off-Broadway’s Gross Indecency: The Trials of Oscar Wilde) is sitting in a wheelchair, a suit jacket over his pajama shirt, and, referring to note cards, offers his insights in a casual, gentle, humorous stream of consciousness about life and death.  The man, whom the program calls “Guy” (though that may not be his name—he doesn’t have one in the script—just his label), is in a characterless room with no furniture, possibly at his home, surrounded by packing boxes and a pile of clothes (the set is by Christine Jones), and is apparently dying.  There’s a door up left, never used as all entrances and exits are made up right: death’s door, do you suppose?  The play’s decidedly Beckettian (to connect to Krapp’s Last Tape, there’s that allusion to a banana!) as Guy meanders through various and sundry topics.  There are slides (starting with two of a toddler who looks remarkably like he could be Emerson as a child—and one of a little girl eating an ice cream cone that might be Eno’s daughter) and home movies, YouTube videos, word puzzles, distant sound effects—a siren (police or an ambulance, he wonders), a cell phone ringing, crickets chirping—and Guy always acknowledges the audience (unlike Krapp and his tape recorder). 

About three-quarters of an hour into the 75-minute performance, Guy’s caregiver, Lisa (January LaVoy), an attractive, stylish younger woman, enters. (Costumes are by Michael Krass.)  Carrying a small picnic cooler—and her own chair—Lisa patiently attends to Guy’s needs and even anticipates some—she brings a kit for making soap bubbles, which Guy admits he loves, and a bag of fortune cookies.  Little by little, Guy loses the thread of his recollections, shows signs of physical weakening, and loses focus as he quietly passes away.

Then the theater erupts in a montage of slides and videos, disco lighting and strobe effects, rock music,  bubbles, and balloons (projections designed by Peter Nigrini, lighting by David Lander, and sound by Nevin Steinberg).  Stage hands bring out baskets of fortune cookies which they place on the edge of the stage, signs inviting us to help ourselves, and the audience goes out into the Griffin’s lobby for refreshments in what can only be called a wake. 

(Going in, I assumed that Eno’s title,  Wakey, Wakey, referred to waking from a sleep, but this final bit makes me realize the playwright’s evoking a wake for the dead as well.  In his STC interview, he confirms this: “I wanted something that sort of has that sense of ‘time to get up’ in it, and also of a ‘wake’—as in an Irish wake, but also has a silly, nursery rhyme thing to it.”)

I enjoyed Wakey, Wakey, and even Diana seemed to have liked it even though it’s an idiosyncratic play.  It’s also slightly metatheatrical—Guy not only addresses us directly but seems to acknowledge that we’re in a theater.  It’s a very quirky play—Eno’s a very quirky writer, and it seems he comes by that naturally (as opposed to putting it on from the outside, like a suit of motley).  He’s clearly not everyone’s cuppa; I don’t say he’s an acquired taste—I don’t think you acquire a taste for Will Eno—but rather you either take to his idiosyncrasies or you don’t, as can be surmised from disparate responses from two reviewers.  “Wakey, Wakey never manages to quite transcend [its ‘seemingly insignificant’] moments; as lovingly as they are described, they just don’t build into a play,” wrote  Elizabeth Wollman on Show Showdown, characterizing the performance as “a bit half-baked.”  On the other hand, Lindsay Timmington acknowledged, “The beauty of Will Eno’s work is that there is always so much more to what you’ve seen and that something will linger with you long after you leave,” on OnStage.  Timmington summed up by reporting, “I leave his shows feeling a tiny bit befuddled, a little exhausted by the marathon of experienced emotions and totally in love with his work.”  I wouldn’t wax as hyperbolic as Timmington, but I fall closer to that end of the continuum of Eno appreciation.  (I enjoy his quirks—they’re like the bubbles in champagne.)

I said I liked the play, but this is another case of my not being certain what the writer’s trying to say.  Eno’s writing about “life and death” (really, the process of dying), obviously, but I haven’t decided what he’s saying on the subject.  (This is my second play in a row at  Signature whose subject is passing from one plane of existence to another.  Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’s Everyman adaptation, Everybody, treated the same idea in an entirely difference style.  See my report on 6 March.)  I found it intriguing both theatrically and thematically.  (I can tell Eno’s saying something, perhaps very personal, even if I haven’t figured out exactly what that is yet.  Does that make sense?)

The theater’s promo puts it this way:

What are we here for?  Is time a friend or an enemy?  Do we all eventually end up in the same place, but take different routes to get there?  ‘Wakey, Wakey’ challenges the notion of what really matters and recognizes the importance of life’s simple pleasures.  (All of which might sound dreary, but there’s a chance this will be a really good experience.)  

In the interview with Signature Literary Manager Jenna Clark Embrey, the author gives a clue to what he’s thinking about:

It’s a play that is kind of about . . . people you love and people dying and how do you think about that and what is, uh, what is a person’s—what remains of a person.  Things like that.  And how do we think about our own death and all that—not to be glum because all these things are things you ask yourself or you ask about other people for the purpose of trying to live a more grand and a meaningful, helpful life.

We’ll see if I can figure out Eno’s point by the time I finish this report!  It’ll be interesting to see how close I can get.  (I don’t think Eno, or whoever penned the blurb above, was intentionally echoing Tennessee Williams, but his 1959 play Sweet Bird of Youth started out as a one-act entitled The Enemy—Time.  Guy, and probably Eno, is ambivalent about our relationship to time—that is, aging—but Williams was adamant that time was not man’s friend, leading inexorably to decay and diminishment.)

Michael Emerson’s performance is remarkable, too.  (He was Oscar Wilde in Gross Indecency Off-Broadway in 1997-98; earning an Outer Critics Circle Award nomination.)  I believe he should at least get an OBIE nomination for this work.  He’s so completely natural and organic in a very odd circumstance, he made me think it was entirely reasonable—despite all the evidence to the contrary.  Astounding work.  (His partner, January LaVoy, is equally good, but in a much less tasking role; she’s only on stage for half an hour of a 75-minute play.) 

The acting of the character of Guy here is immensely important, more than for most other lead characters, because handled badly or misguidedly, the play will slip into maudlinness or pretentiousness.  With Eno himself at the helm, the guidance is clearly in good hands—he knows exactly what the part needs to make the play work.  (The tyro director either learned from observation how to work effectively with an actor, or was fortuitous/discerning in his casting.)  As writer, Eno wanted to capture some of James Houghton’s spirit, especially in his last days, and as director, he seems to have guided Emerson toward the same goal.  “If Emerson is not playing Houghton, per se, he is certainly channeling his spirit and perhaps some of the wisdom he left behind,” suggested Hayley Levitt on TheaterMania

Emerson approaches the role with a quiet sincerity, but not without humor—a light touch that never leaks over into preachy or pedantic.  (“Jim . . . had a way with being funny that—since it didn’t seem like it was his first priority—it just made things funnier.” recounts Eno.  “I don’t know how a person can be an incredible leader and a sort of class clown and prankster, but he was a little bit that.”)  He keeps the monologues conversational, as if he were really talking to us and making up his spiel as he goes along, taking cues from the visuals or his memories—or occasionally his notes, which seem to have mostly become irrelevant after he assembled them.  While LaVoy is a tad more actorly as Lisa, Emerson never seems anything but natural, as if he were improvising the whole performance.  (What might look like improvisations or accidents aren’t, as proved by the published reviewers—which I’ll get to at the end of this report as usual—who all comment on the same moments that drew my own attention even though we each will have seen different performances.) 

Furthermore, the actor strikes just the right tone—not quite diffident and not quite in command—to make Guy not only sympathetic as a character, but the regular guy his label identifies him as.  Like the title character in Jacobs-Jenkins’s Everybody, Eno’s—and Emerson’s—Guy is all of us.  (I don’t know if Eno would have objections, but I think Guy could easily be played by a woman; there’s nothing really gender-specific in the part—aside from its designation in the program.)  Maintaining this balance convincingly—and I found it totally convincing—is why I assert Emerson is earning an OBIE nod.  It looks simple, but it’s far from it—as actors and acting students will immediately recognize.  (Given Emerson’s past roles, we can also know that this is work, not just his natural behavior.  He just does it in a way that looks like his normal demeanor.)  Let me just add that this is one of those rare occurrences in theater: the perfect alignment of role and actor.  Kudos to both Eno (for casting Emerson) and Emerson for his stage work!

By the way, one additional remark: this is a play that should appeal to small companies and college theaters—it has the most minimal of sets, two actors, and easy tech (slides, recorded music, and a few simple light and sound FX)—plus it’s very short, a good student-directing candidate if the student can handle the acting style.  (Apparently it’s already in press by Oberon Books for publication on 30 March; the Drama Book Shop is advertizing it now.)

On Show-Score, Wakey, Wakey accumulated an average rating of 72 based on a survey of 34 notices.  The site tallied 68% positive reviews, 12% negative, and 20% mixed.  Show-Score's highest rating was 95, of which there were two, with five 90’s; the lowest score was a single 35, with one 41.  (I’ll be reviewing 19 notices for my round-up.)

In the New York Daily News, Joe Dziemianowicz characterized Wakey, Wakey as an “odd but gently urgent play” in which “the going gets curious.”  Guy’s reminiscence “tends to be elliptical, cryptic and trails off into dead ends,” added the Newsman.  “No matter,” wrote Dziemianowicz: Emerson plays Guy “with a magnetic open-hearted humor, so we stay connected.”  For the suburban Bergen County, New Jersey, Record, Robert Feldberg asserted that Wakey, Wakey “isn’t really a play.  It’s an accounting of the things that matter in life.”  Wrote Feldberg, “Presented with quiet authority and a soft, ironic humor by the remarkable Michael Emerson . . ., observations that might otherwise seem random, and sentimental, coalesce into a painful but brave last embrace of ordinary pleasures.” 

“Though the man telling the jokes is sitting down (he’s in a wheelchair), dying is a stand-up routine in ‘Wakey, Wakey,’” observed Ben Brantley in the New York Times, dubbing it a “glowingly dark, profoundly moving new play” and a “short, resonant tragicomedy.”  Comparing Eno’s work to Albee’s, Brantley also asserted, “‘Wakey, Wakey’ retains a Beckettian sense of human existence as an absurdist vaudeville, a slapstick of failing and falling, despite all aspirations to dignity.”  The Timesman continued, “But Mr. Eno’s play is warmer and less magisterial than most of Mr. Albee’s work.  You could even call it cozy, which is not to say it doesn’t chill.”  The playwright and Michael Emerson “together tap into the show business in the business of breathing your last,” reported Brantley, praising the actor’s portrayal “with a master’s blend of pretty much every emotion there is.”  The Times reviewer declared, “The astonishment of Mr. Emerson’s performance is how universal and particular it is,” characterizing him as a “magnetic presence” and “the show’s most dazzling special effect.” 

The New Yorker’s “Goings On About Town” reviewer described Wakey, Wakey as “theatrical games” and pronounced that the “script’s perfect unpredictability” is “for a long while . . . thrilling.  But, as the protagonist’s energy flags, so does the show’s.”  Emerson, though, “makes for engaging and funny company.”  In the Village Voice, after characterizing the play as “chatting desultorily about life,” Michael Feingold asserted, “It all sounds absurdly trivial and random, which is part of writer-director Eno’s intention,” and then added, “But Wakey Wakey’s sharp writing, heightened by the easygoing asperity of Emerson’s performance, stirs deeper feelings.  Granted, the truth it conveys is small, rarefied, and overly hedged with decorative distractions.  Even so, it’s genuine.” 

Opening his notice in New York magazine with the statement, “The first half of . . . Wakey, Wakey . . . is a neat summary of everything theatergoers either love or hate about Will Eno.  I will write from the latter perspective,” Jesse Green described the play as “a rambling monologue of no apparent consequence.”  After presenting a list of the play’s deficiencies, all emblematic of Green’s complaints about Eno’s dramaturgy, the man from New York concluded, “The topics, however absurd on the surface, all collapse into meditations on mortality; to bring home the point Eno even gives us a YouTube video of animals screaming.  I may have been among them.”  Then LaVoy’s Lisa, “so radiantly warm onstage,” enters and Green reported, “The struggle between insincerity and urgency that Guy has been enacting gives way, under Lisa’s gentleness, to something more direct and beautiful.”  He acknowledged, “I felt my hostility toward the first half of Wakey, Wakey, with all its dull cuteness, beginning to melt.”  Emerson, said Green (in contrast to most other reviewers),”though technically excellent, cannot get so far with his character.”  (The New York review-writer suggested that Eno’s direction is in part to blame for this failure.)  Acknowledging that “the physical production . . . is ideal,” the New York reviewer caviled that “the play as a whole does not yet reward so much care.” 

Comparing Wakey, Wakey with that other Signature production about death and dying, Frank Rizzo labels Eno’s play “a work of humor, humanity and grace that makes you want to hug your lover, your neighbor and maybe an usher on the way out” in Variety.  Emerson “offers a captivating, playful and deeply moving performance” as the dying man, “a loving transition, theatrically told in a sui generis style that is Eno’s own.  As Guy would say, ‘Wowee.’”  Dubbing the play “quietly beautiful,” Time Out New York’s David Cote explained that Eno “makes a spectacle of vamping and false starts, awkward yet deeply felt pauses, as the keen, funny, transfixing Emerson reads from index cards, gets his slides confused and bathes the audience in his gentle, beatific fussiness.” 

In the Hollywood Reporter, David Rooney, calling Wakey, Wakey the writer’s “typically idiosyncratic little play” and his “latest existential inquiry,” asserted, “Will Eno’s plays tend to live more in his characters’ minds than in any experiences we witness them going through.”  The HR reviewer reported, “The hook that reels us into this abstruse, tricky, stream-of-consciousness contemplation of mortality is a beautiful performance from Michael Emerson.”  In “this unexpectedly affecting (almost) two-character piece,” Eno and Emerson create “also a sense of playfulness.”  There are moments, said Rooney, when “you wonder whether this is more of an inspirational seminar or a play.  In fact it's a little of both and neither.”   He noted, “While the thematic richness of Wakey, Wakey creeps up on you . . ., few will make the claim that this is a major addition to Eno's distinctive body of work.”  Rooney concluded, however, “Eno's unique voice—quizzical, perceptive, assertively compassionate—is one to be celebrated.” 

In the cyber press, Hayley Levitt on TheaterMania quipped, “Only Will Eno could find the playfulness in a dying man’s end-of-life ruminations.”  Levitt observed that Eno ends his Residency Five term “not so much with a bang, but with a wink and a knowing smile that patrons willing to listen intently will receive with warmhearted joy.”  The TM reviewer explained that “Eno’s dialogue remains stilted and aloof.  It serves the play’s purposes—and could not be given a more naturalistic performance than the one Emerson is delivering.”  She warned, however, that “if you require peaks and valleys of drama to keep you engaged in a story, you may get sleepy within Wakey, Wakey’s microscopic modulations and extended silences.”  On CurtainUp, Simon Saltzman dubbed the play “contemplative” and reported, “Never morbid, it is surprisingly illuminating and insightful, even revelatory.”  Of all Eno’s plays, Saltzman said, Wakey, Wakey, “sensitively directed by the playwright,” is “his most easily embraced and most deliberately accessible.”  In the end, she concluded, “The press release has this hopeful line: ‘. . . there’s a chance this will be a really good experience.’  It was . . . and more.”

“I’d love to tell you what Wakey, Wakey . . . is about, but it ain’t easy,” admitted Talkin’ Broadway’s Matthew Murray in the opening of his review.  He offered an explanation of what he says Eno thinks the play is about, then cautions, “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.”  Murray then declared, “That it’s his best play since his New York breakthrough . . . is all but irrelevant: How much should any artist be praised for fulfilling the bare minimum of the challenges he sets for himself?”  The TB reviewer asserted, “Emerson does everything he can with” Eno’s script, but “[t]he shtick gets tiresome quickly.”  He continued, “Around its edges, however, Wakey, Wakey evinces more discipline than Eno has displayed in years. . . .   Your reaction to what happens will depend entirely on whether you buy what he’s selling and how he’s selling it.”  On TheaterScene, Joel Benjamin asserted, “Wakey, Wakey is Will Eno at his surreal, troubling, beautiful best, a play both challenging and easily absorbed.  

Theater Pizzazz’s Carol Rocamora opens her review by asking, “What’s this?  A stand-up comedy routine?” adding that the actor in the wheelchair is “not making sense.”  Determining that Wakey, Wakey is “initially mysterious and ultimately deeply moving,” and that Emerson delivers “a mesmerizing monologue that plays with your mind and ultimately with your heart.”  On Theatre’s Leiter Side, Samuel L. Leiter described Eno’s play as “an idiosyncratic, essentially plotless, seriocomic, elliptical, but heartfelt rumination on mortality.”  Yet Leiter warned that Eno “has a gift for unusual situations and quirkily delightful dialogue, and he knows how to get laughs with verbal surprises, but in Wakey, Wakey, he offers little new or revelatory about the human condition.”  Nonetheless, Emerson’s performance “makes you hang on every word, even if you don’t always know precisely what he means.”  Leiter’s concluding thoughts are:

As Wakey, Wakey moves inexorably toward its anticipated conclusion (climax is too animated a word), its unhurried pace slows . . . to . . . a . . . crawl, making its title seem a misreading for Wake Me, Wake Me.  Its acting and production elements score highly, but while some visitors will certainly be touched others are likely to find Wakey, Wakey  too wishy-washy for their tastes.
Emily Gawlak of StageBuddy labeled Wakey, Wakey “overwhelmingly joyous, moving, and unpredictable” and declared, “With Wakey, Wakey, Eno and Emerson achieve a stunning feat, compelling an audience of strangers to deeply mourn the loss of a man who is not only a stranger but a fiction.”  Gawlak concluded, “Wakey, Wakey is a truly great play, one that reasserts the unique power of theatre to create a space for catharsis and community building.  You’ll want to recapture the heart-bursting, life-affirming feeling again and again.”  On Broadway World, Michael Dale acknowledged, “Emerson makes for appealing company and Eno’s meandering text has its cute and funny moments.”  He then added, “But there’s also a redundant meta quality that gets tiresome.”  Echoing one of Guy’s lines, Dale finished up quipping, “As for any further descriptions, I don’t know exactly what to say to you.”

Tulis McCall started off by praising Emerson’s performance in Wakey, Wakey on New York Theatre Guide, then continued, “Would that the material itself held up as well.”  Emerson, McCall asserted, “is apparently very funny if you were to judge from the reactions of the audience the night I attended.  I found his work intriguing and introspective, but not funny in the least.”  The NYTG reviewer observed, “Eno writes with sly winks and nods and intellectual forays thither and yon.  It can be a pleasure to listen to, especially in the hands of Emerson who is both deft and grounded . . . .”  Then she lamented, “In the end, however, there is not enough ‘there’ there on which you can hang your hat.”  McCall’s conclusion?  “Wakey Wakey is an event that falls short of becoming a piece that hits you where you live, or, in this case, expire.”  On New York Theater, Jonathan Mandell, dubbing Wakey, Wakey “the latest ethereal, esoteric play by Will Eno,” referred to a line of Guy’s—“They say practicing gratitude can physically change the shape of the brain, in a good way”—which he actually looks up on the ‘Net.  (It turns out to be true.)  Then he added, “I doubt my brain is going to be changed very much by ‘Wakey, Wakey,’ but I did like it better than anything else I’ve seen by Eno, whose comic, cosmic, cryptic approach to playwriting has consistently charmed other people.”  Mandell went on to admit, “Too often, I’ve found his impish sensibility grating.”  Though the NY Theater review-writer found, “With gentle humor and a lack of fussiness, Michael Emerson manages to woo us through the deliberate vagueness, starts-and-stops, meta interruptions, of his monologue,” in the final analysis, he felt, “Much of what Eno’s script is trying to induce about the celebration and uncertainty of life and death has been done better and with more clarity elsewhere.” 

Okay, so what did I learn—about Eno’s point, I mean?  Leaving aside the tribute and homage to James Houghton, the playwright’s private message embedded in his play, I’m going to have to say that Wakey, Wakey is Eno’s lesson in saying goodbye.  “There’s always someone or something to say goodbye to,” says Guy, and Eno’s told us how much he learned from Houghton’s last days.  It’s not portentous last words that matter, Eno says, but first words.  Learning to say goodbye might help us learn to say hello better, says Guy.  Then we can talk about all the trivial small things that make up a life—our own and other people’s.  We don’t learn much about Guy’s circumstances—but we do learn something about his . . . well, what should I call it?  His soul.  Eno just called it “what remains of a person.”  Eno’s obviously not a subscriber to Dylan Thomas’s view on dying, for Guy chats with us, shares his thoughts and feelings, and then goes gentle into that good night.  What Eno wants us to understand, then, is how to do that with class.  What d’ya think?  How’d I do in the end?

19 March 2017

From My August Wilson Archive, Part 2

[This is the second installment of my 2-part series of archival August Wilson play reports, performances I saw before I started Rick On Theater.  Part 1, which included the linked plays Seven Guitars (1995), set in 1948, and King Hedley II (1999), set in 1985, was posted on 16 March.  I recommend checking it out before or after reading Part 2.]

Signature Theatre Company
New York City
13 December 2006

I saw the second play in the Signature Theatre’s August Wilson season on Friday, 8 December [2006]:  Two Trains Running, which, in a capsule, has both the pleasures and the problems of most Wilson plays, and it has them in extremis.  The production at Signature’s Peter Norton Space is generally excellent from both the directing and acting perspectives.  (Though, for some reason, several of the cast were still having line problems now and then, even though the play opened the previous Sunday, the 3rd.  Ben Brantley mentions this in his 4 December review in the New York Times; however, he saw the show in a preview and I saw it almost a week after opening.) 

Set in 1969 in the Hill District of Pittsburgh, Two Trains unfolds in the rundown diner of Memphis Lee (Frankie Faison), the locals’ communal hang-out. The neighborhood is slated for “urban renewal,” and the city intends to exercise eminent domain to raze what remains of the block that includes Memphis’s restaurant.  Memphis owns the rundown building that houses the diner, and the plot begins with his determination to make the city meet his price of $25,000—which he’s unlikely to realize.  But Memphis isn’t the only one wrestling with problems.  The diner’s replete with habitués, some regulars and some strangers, and employees who’re struggling to figure their lives out. Holloway (Arthur French), a bit of secular preacher and the play’s Wilsonian sage, scoffs at the white idea that blacks are lazy, pointing out that they toiled day and night as slaves for hundreds of years, and now that the white man has to pay them, suddenly there are no jobs.  West (Ed Wheeler), the undertaker whose funeral parlor is across the street from Memphis’s diner, has become the richest man in the neighborhood from selling his neighbors expensive caskets and “laying them out in style.”  Hambone (Leon Addison Brown), a mad and damaged soul, spends much of his stage time at the counter over a bowl of beans, periodically shouting, “I want my ham!  He gonna give me my ham!”  Risa (January LaVoy), the diner’s waitress has cut up her legs to make them ugly so men will leave her alone.  Sterling (Chad L. Coleman), a young man who recently got out of prison, just wants some money and a woman.  Wolf (Ron Cephas Jones), the numbers runner, is a dream peddler: his illegal business gives the players the hope of improving their material lives.

One of the chief pleasures of the performance is the ensemble work of the cast.  They really create the sense of a micro-community within that diner, even while each actor creates a character of eccentricity and precise individuality.  That, of course, is one of Wilson’s main strengths—he writes striking characters, each a sort of portrait of someone from Wilson’s life.  They are all actors’ dreams.  Even the most eccentric, oddball character, like Hambone in this play (and Hedley in Seven Guitars), is credible in Wilson’s world and fits right in with the other inhabitants.  Even though you know Wilson has contrived his population this way, it never seems contrived.  (In a coincidence, this is the second Signature company which features a member of the cast of the HBO series The Wire.  Frankie Faison, Memphis in this play, plays the police commissioner in that show and Lance Reddick—Floyd “Schoolboy” Barton in Seven Guitars—plays now-Colonel Daniels.)

The same is true of his language.  If the characters are all actors’ dream roles, Wilson’s dialogue is a great part of what makes that so.  Wilson writes vernacular poetry, and like other poets of the modern stage—Tennessee Williams, say, or Chekhov and Ibsen—his words never seem out of place even though they are extraordinary speech that sparkles the way no ordinary person could manage to utter.  There was plenty of this in evidence in Two Trains, especially since there is little action in the play so language shares the primary focus with character.  (In his Times review, Brantley called Two Trains one of Wilson’s two—with Jitney—“least eventful” plays.)

As I remarked, I think, in my comments on Seven Guitars [see part 1 of this Wilson archive series, 16 March], Wilson puts his characters into these wonderful little slices of life with each scene.  Two Trains is perhaps more episodic than other Wilson plays, especially Seven Guitars, so there are many, many scenes (separated by brief blackouts, just to emphasize this structure), and each of them could almost stand as a little one-act, a moment from Wilson’s world captured as if in some passing headlight.  And like a gem in a headlight, each one sparkles with life and truth and honesty.   Wilson, as I’ve said several times, draws an absolutely indelible and vivid portrait of a time and place.  It’s more than just photographs, of course, because it’s imbued with his impressions and insights—not to mention that prose poetry.  I imagine actors could mine their parts for months and keep finding new details and aspects.  (If acting classes aren’t full of August Wilson scenes and monologues, I’d be shocked.)

But, of course, this is part also of the problems evident in Two Trains—one of Wilson’s major dramaturgical faults: his lack of plot.  In Seven Guitars, there is the slimmest thread of storyline—and an end we know the play is aiming at.  The play starts with Schoolboy’s funeral, so we know he dies, and then flashes back to the weeks before his death.  We learn quickly that he’s been offered a chance to cut a record in Chicago, but he needs front money to get there.  The play’s not about that, but the story is, and we have that little chain of events to follow: what Schoolboy does that ends up in his death.  There isn’t even that much of a plot in Two Trains—we have no expected ending to pull us along, and no goal someone is trying to reach (except Hambone’s ham, really just a leitmotif, and Memphis’s deal with the city).  There is a theme, however: life and death—the two trains of the title.  Life is represented by, among other elements, the hustle and bustle of the activity in the diner and death is symbolized by the funeral parlor across the street, owned by the neighborhood’s richest citizen and a regular patron of the diner.  But that’s not enough to stitch a play together; as a result, even though the scenes are each golden on their own, it remains a collage of small glimpses of the life of the 1969 Hill District, unlinked causally to a whole.  The scenes don’t connect and there’s no throughline.  (I wonder if this has something to do with the line problems among the cast.)  The only structural connectives in Two Trains are, of course, the consistent presence of the same characters, the recurring references to various subjects—the ham that Hambone feels he’s owed by a local (white) storeowner; the upcoming rally in honor of Malcolm X; the discussions of the unseen (until a later play) character of Aunt Ester; everyone’s pursuit of money—and, obviously, the unvarying locale, Memphis’s diner. 

But the characters are also somewhat disconnected, though they all exist in the same small place when we see them.  (The characters in Seven Guitars are all tied to one another in various ways.)  Most of the men deal with Wolf, the numbers man, but he’s really a peripheral character except when Sterling hits the number and there’s a briefly extended drama of the winner seeking out the runner for his payoff while Wolf avoids him (because the numbers bosses cut the winnings in half when too many people hit it).  Sterling and the waitress, Risa, have a sort of connection—he pursues her, but she mostly resists, and the dance seems cold and perfunctory even though they do connect in the end.  Otherwise, the characters all have their own, private concerns—aside from Hambone’s ham, there is Memphis’s fight with the city to get his price for the diner building which has been condemned to make way for civic improvements, for instance—which they pursue pretty much independently and with little consequence for anyone else.  (In a somewhat odd turn, everyone gets what he or she wants at the end.  Even Hambone gets his ham—when Sterling steals it from the store after Hambone’s death.  Even that death, although unexpected and sudden, isn’t harsh—Hambone dies in his sleep at home in bed.)

Though Wilson’s dramatic worlds are often compared to Chekhov’s, I believe it’s Uta Hagen who replied to the common complaint that nothing happens in a Chekhov play by saying, “Nothing but the end of one world and the beginning of another.”  1969, when the play’s set, would seem like an apt time for such a shift in the lives of African Americans—the end of the era of sanctioned segregation and lawful discrimination and the beginning of the time of black empowerment and hope for a colorblind society, demarcated by the violent deaths of first Malcolm X (1965) and then Martin Luther King (1968) the year before the play takes place.  But Two Trains isn’t about that at all; it’s both smaller than that—local and personal concerns, not national ones—and larger—life and death as the characters experience them day to day, pretty much as we all do.  In the end, there’s no sense of upheaval in Two Trains, just a (very poetic) glimpse into Wilson’s world at one moment in its history.  It’s hardly Chekhovian.

The second dramaturgical problem that is exemplified by Two Trains is that Wilson isn’t a very good editor.  The play runs three hours (plus intermission).  Because the performance started a few minutes late, that meant we didn’t get out of the theater until almost 11:30—a long evening at the theater (and not a very good hour on a cold night to be hanging around far West 42nd Street waiting for a crosstown bus!).  I don’t know if any real damage might have been done to the play if Wilson had cut a few of the scenes, but since they aren’t causally linked to each other, the consequences would seem to have been minimal.  I remember some advice one of my teachers passed along from an editor she had had: “Kill your babies.”  In other words, be ready to cut the parts you really like—a problem I myself have.  (But, then, I don’t write plays—for which there’s probably a very good reason.) 

I remember saying that I saw the 1992 Broadway production of Two Trains but that I remembered seeing Laurence Fishburne (as the ex-con Sterling, played here by Chad L. Coleman—who also appeared in The Wire, though not as a regular) but that I have little recollection of the play.  Now I can understand why—it doesn’t hang together to amount to much as a drama.  It’s a series of moments—wonderful moments, but still just moments.  Wilson’s plays that I’ve seen all have these same problems, some more than others, and I remember saying when I left Fences in 1987, my first encounter with Wilson’s theater, that if it hadn’t been for the performance of James Earl Jones as Troy Maxson that the play wouldn’t be running because so little happened in it.  (Sure enough, when Billy Dee Williams replaced Jones, the play closed in five months.)  Happily, the pleasures of Wilson’s writing outweigh the deficiencies, and I was more than glad to have seen this revival. 

Arena Stage
Washington, D.C.
20 February 2007

I went down to Washington, D.C., last week to see the Arena Stage’s production of August Wilson’s Gem of the Ocean, the play in Wilson’s Century Cycle covering the first decade of the 20th century.  I had missed it when it ran on Broadway between December 2004 and February 2005 because the production lost an investor shortly before opening and the producers postponed the opening date, canceling some early performances.  I had had tickets during the period of cancellation and couldn’t accommodate the replacement dates the show offered and had to settle for a refund instead.  When I saw while I was in D.C to spend the 2006-07 year-end holidays with my mother that Arena was mounting Gem, I decided to go back down and catch it.

My mother, who subscribes to Arena, and I went to the show on Thursday, 15 February [2007].  A spate of snow and sub-freezing temperatures in Washington had made nighttime driving, especially through Rock Creek Park, potentially treacherous, so Mother took a less direct route and a little extra time to get to the Southwest neighborhood of the Arena Stage.  We also needed to exchange the tickets, originally for the previous evening when bad weather had been forecast, which necessitated a stop at the box office.  Gem of the Ocean, the next-to-last play Wilson wrote in his ten-year cycle (his last two scripts—Radio Golf was Wilson’s last play in the series, written the year he died, 2005—cover the first and last decades of the 20th century), was staged in the Fichandler, Arena’s original theater-in-the-round.  Peter Marks gave the production a good review in the Washington Post ten days earlier (though mentioning its nearly-three-hour length) and despite the bad weather reports, the audience was fairly large at midweek.  (The Moonie Washington Times also came out positive for the production.) 

Marks calls Gem “a lesser achievement” in Wilson’s series, and he’s right.  Compared to Fences, Two Trains Running, and Seven Guitars, it’s less poetic and more preachy (Marks called it “tipped . . . toward the didactic,” another thing he got right).  It seems as if Wilson had planned this script to launch the panorama by introducing ideas and his general intent as if it were a kind of prologue.  Set in 1904 (precisely 100 years before Wilson wrote it), Gem focuses on the residual legacy of slavery on African Americans, both those born under it (several characters are old enough to have been born in bondage; two had been involved in the Underground Railway) and those born later (the focal character, Citizen Barlow, played here by Jimonn Cole, was so named by his mother to acknowledge his status as a free-born American).  Everyone in the play and those only mentioned are still facing the lasting effects of slavery, the Civil War, and Reconstruction, even as they have moved north to Pittsburgh.  (The play is set in the Hill District of Wilson’s native city, where most of the decalogue takes place.) 

There’s a lot of discussion about slavery and its history and its impact, both actual and metaphorical.  As Marks describes it, it’s a history lesson.  And right in the middle of the second act is a symbolic reenactment of the Middle Passage, induced by Aunt Ester (the 235-year-old sage, played by Lynnie Godfrey, who reappears as an unseen figure in Two Trains and in whose house Gem is set) so that Citizen can get right with himself.  Citizen had stolen a bucket of nails from the iron mill and another man had been blamed for the theft and died rather than take the blame for a crime he didn’t commit.  After the hallucinogenic experience, Citizen sets out with Solly Two Kings (Joseph Marcell) to return to Alabama where Solly’s sister is under such oppression that she cannot even leave the state to come north to escape the privation under which she and other blacks are forced to live.  The two men are going to function as a sort of latter-day Underground Railway (Solly is one of the two characters who had served the Railway during slavery), but when Solly is killed leaving Pittsburgh, Citizen sets out again on his own—a kind of penance for his part in the death of the accused thief and a symbolic connection to the slave past he is too young to have experienced himself.

Ironically, though Gem suffers from many of the same dramaturgical faults of Wilson’s other plays—extreme length, meandering structure, extraneous scenes and ones that go on too long—there is more of a plot here than in most other Wilson scripts.  It’s rudimentary, to be sure, but it’s there.  But this asset is, unhappily, balanced by the nature of Wilson’s language in this script: it is less poetic and lofty than his past writing and there isn’t the thrill of hearing his words roll out of the mouths of the street poets who are his characters.  The characters, though, are every bit as evocative as those that populate his other plays: Citizen, the young newcomer (he still wears “clodhoppers”) caught in the disheartening cycle of economic disenfranchisement that keeps blacks in an underclass from which they can’t escape; Solly, the local philosopher (there’s almost always one in Wilsonland—an American griot); Aunt Ester, the ancient seer and healer; Black Mary (Pascale Armand), the young woman who holds a promise of the future; Caesar Wilkes (LeLand Gantt), Mary’s brother and the local lawman appointed by the white authorities to keep the black ward under control (a kind of reverse scalawag). 

It’s all just too set-up, I think, though; Wilson seems to have contrived this play more to lead into the other nine than to stand on its own as a portrait of an actual time and place.  The circumstances he creates here are much less special and unique than in the other plays I’ve seen.  (After King Hedley II, which I’m booked to see at the end of March—if all goes according to plan—I will have seen all but two of the series: Jitney and Radio Golf.  [As readers will know by now, I saw Jitney in 2017; see my report on 24 February.  King Hedley is part of the first section of this series, posted on 16 March.])  That truly extraordinary sense that you are peeking back at a moment in time, like that episode from Star Trek where the crew watches bits of history unfolding—except that Wilson’s bits are tied to specific people of that time, not just “historical figures”—is missing in Gem, in addition to its more pedestrian language.  It’s as if Wilson was less inspired to write this play, to tell this special story, than that he felt obligated to create an introductory play to get the series started—as if he were not so much moved to write it as duty-bound.

The acting and Paulette Randall’s directing are fine in the Arena production.  The use of the Fichandler, while not inspired, is not a detriment in any way.  (I have seen one other Wilson play at the Arena, Ma Rainey [2002; no report], but it was staged at the Kreeger, the proscenium space.)  The space represents the main room of Aunt Ester’s house, designed by Scott Bradley, encompassing the kitchen, dining area, and sitting room, and the lack of complete realistic detail—it’s a fragmentary set, though what set pieces are present are realistic—doesn’t seem to have any effect on the play in comparison to, say, the totally naturalistic restaurant box of Two Trains or the realistically-rendered backyard setting of Seven Guitars, both at New York City’s Signature Theatre Company. 

Wilson’s plays, like those of Tennessee Williams or Chekhov, authors to whom I’ve heard Wilson compared, are not truly realistic anyway—they’re a heightened, lyrical form of that genre, I think: they look (and sound) like Realism until you examine them a little.  They don’t require realistic trappings to work.  (The only drawback to using the arena space is that the voms, whose floors are built up to be down-ramps into the room—instead of the up-ramps they are normally—make entrances and exits longer than the quick comings and goings of a proscenium box set.  The actors and director have to do a little surreptitious covering to justify the longer crosses in and out of the room.  I’m guessing no one but me and my ilk probably noticed this, however.)  In all other respects (well, that one, too—since the design of the theater isn’t her fault), director Randall, who has mounted several Wilson plays in London (including Gem) does a fine job. 

The cast, led by Jimonn Cole as Citizen Barlow and Lynnie Godfrey as Aunt Ester, is very good, if not as exquisite as the Signature casts I’ve been seeing this season.  (In a coincidence, one cast member, Clayton LeBouef, who plays Eli, Aunt Ester’s caretaker, has also appeared in HBO’s The Wire, in which several actors from both the New York Wilson productions I’ve seen recently have been featured cast members.  LeBouef’s main TV role was Colonel Barnfather, the careerist police commander in the Homicide series.)  If I had to name a standout in the cast, it would have to be Joseph Marcell as Solly Two Kings, the sort of conscience of the Hill District.  Without being flashy or idiosyncratic, Marcell seems to draw attention to Solly, who is always ready to take action in behalf of the community—from guiding slaves to freedom on the Underground Railway, to helping southern blacks escape north when the state authorities prevent it, to setting fire to the mill where the mostly black workers are striking in protest to the new kind of economic slavery they are subjected to now.  A close second, however, is the performance of Pascale Armand as Black Mary, Aunt Ester’s cook and housekeeper.  Armand (and Wilson) have created what must be the progenitor of the modern black woman, the pre-feminist, pre-civil rights independent woman who even stands up to Aunt Ester to do things her own way.  (Aunt Ester’s response: “What took you so long!”)

The single acting fault I saw is Godfrey’s habit of speaking awfully fast as Aunt Ester.  She didn’t overact the age (how do you act 235, anyway?) or, in my opinion, overdo the Southern accent (though Mom complained about that), but she spoke so fast that I had to concentrate on her dialogue just in order to hear the words.  No one else had this difficulty so it wasn’t the fault of the acoustics or the direction I don’t think.  That Aunt Ester is such a central role in Gem means that this is more of a problem than it might otherwise be.

Obviously, for all its problems and deficiencies, Gem of the Ocean still has its Wilsonian pleasures.  It isn’t the gem its title suggests (that Gem is the name of the slave ship that symbolically carries Citizen to his redemption), but it’s still August Wilson.  As I’ve said of other major playwrights, most notably Stephen Sondheim, even bad August Wilson—and this wasn’t remotely that—is still better than 90 per cent of everything else that’s out there at its best.  And even if his dramaturgy is flawed, this is still a writer with something on his mind, something provocative, interesting, and worthy.  God knows, not every playwright can claim that these days.

[For those interested, at the end of my 24 February report on Jitney, I appended a list of the 10 plays in Wilson’s Century Cycle with pertinent dates--setting, première, and Broadway début.  There’s also a brief discussion in the report on the decalogue as a theatrical and literary accomplishment.]

16 March 2017

From My August Wilson Archive, Part 1

[On 24 February, I posted a report on the Broadway première of August Wilson’s Jitney, the last of the playwright’s 10-play Century Cycle to make it to the Great White Way.  It was also the ninth of Wilson’s cycle plays that I’ve seen; I’m missing only Radio Golf now, the play that covers the 20th century’s final decade and the last play Wilson composed before his death in October 2005.  (He saw Radio Golf début at the Yale Repertory Theatre in 2005, but didn’t survive to see it open on Broadway two years later.) 

[I started Rick On Theater on 16 March 2009, eight years ago today, so there are many play reports I wrote before I launched the blog in what I call my archive, which stretches back to the 1970s, soon after I moved to New York City.  (There are also, as you’ll hear, many plays that I never wrote about as well; I didn’t start writing up all the plays I see until 2003.)  Of the now nine Wilson cycle plays I’ve seen, I’ve posted blog reports on The Piano Lesson (13 December 2012);and Jitney.  (There’s also a report on How I Learned What I Learned, 30 December 2013, Wilson’s solo performance piece he didn’t live to deliver in New York City; I saw Ruben Santiago-Hudson perform it.)  The plays I saw when I wasn’t writing them up were Fences (July 1987), Joe Turner’s Come and Gone (Fall 1996), and Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (Fall 2002); there are no reports on those three.  I also saw the Broadway premières of Two Trains Running in May 1992 and Seven Guitars in May 1996, before I regularly reported on performances, but I saw them again Off-Broadway in December and October 2006, and I did write about those productions.  (Two Trains will be in Part 2 of this short series.) 

[When I wrote the report on Jitney, I suggested that I might post my archival reports on the August Wilson plays I saw before ROT existed.  In the second part of this archival series, I’ll post the reports on Two Trains, the cycle play that covers the 1960s, and Gem of the Ocean, the one about the 1900s.  Below, in Part 1 of “From My August Wilson Archive,” I’m presenting my reports on Seven Guitars and King Hedley II, the only two plays in Wilson’s series that are narratively linked: Seven Guitars, set in 1948, includes a character named King Hedley and the title character of King Hedley II, set 12 years later, is an unborn child in Seven Guitars who’s named for Hedley.  I thought it’d be appropriate to present these two old reports together for that reason.]

Signature Theatre Company
New York City
22 October 2006

Diana, my subscription partner, and I managed to get to see August Wilson’s Seven Guitars Friday evening, 13 October [2006]—but it was touch-and-go for a moment.  We just seem to have bad luck with that show!  Our originally-scheduled performance at the Peter Norton Space on far West 42nd Street last month was canceled at the last minute—we had actually gotten to the theater before we learned—because a member of the cast got sick and Signature Theatre doesn’t use understudies.  Friday night, an actor had an accident on stage (or just off stage—I’m not sure where it happened exactly) and apparently gave himself a small cut just above his right eye.  They had to stop the scene—one early in the show—so he could exit and have it attended to backstage.  Then they returned about 15 minutes later, rewound a few beats, and picked up again.  Since I haven’t seen any other performances, I don’t have the basis for a real judgment, but as far as I could tell, the work was as strong as it probably would have been if they hadn’t had the mishap and the interruption.  

I suppose that’s the big “news” for this show, which is about Pittsburgh Blues singer Floyd “Schoolboy” Barton.  Set in the back yard of a dilapidated house in Pittsburgh’s Hill District in 1948, the Second World War has been over for just three years.  At the start of the play, Floyd’s friends have gathered after his funeral; he died suddenly and inexplicably.  (This production was staged just 10 months after Wilson’s own death at 60 from liver cancer.  The plans for STC’s August Wilson season were laid before the playwright announced he was ill.)  Then the play flashes back to the week leading to Floyd’s death.

Just released from jail, Floyd’s invited to sign a record deal when a song he recorded months earlier becomes an unexpected hit.  After a year of difficulties, Floyd is ready to correct the mistakes of past years and return to Chicago with a new understanding of what's important in his life.  Unfortunately his means of righting wrongs are inherently flawed.

The acting (and Ruben Santiago-Hudson’s directing) was superb.  This was one of the best ensemble casts I’ve seen in a very long time—everyone was solid, alive, and in touch with one another; no one seemed to be overshadowing anyone else, and they were all in the same play.  I’ll single out two performers, but mostly because of their characters—though, of course, it’s important to add that the actors communicated those characters exceptionally.  First, Kevin T. Carroll, who plays Canewell, just seemed to be in a  kind of special spotlight (not literally, of course).  I can’t really say why his performance stood out for me—he was just real, though so were his comrades, and at the same time, special.  I’m going to take a wild-ass guess here, but what it felt like to me was that Carroll wasn’t doing straight Stanislavsky, with all that inside work.  It seemed as if he was working from some portion of the British method, which is more technical.  Not exclusively—he didn’t come off as technical.  You can often tell when one actor in a cast is working externally while the rest are working internally.  No, what I felt was that he somehow blended the two techniques so that he enhanced the Stanislavskian verisimilitude so that his Canewell was more sharply etched.  I don’t even know if that makes any sense.  (This is the role for which Ruben Santiago-Hudson, the director of this revival, got his 1996 supporting-actor Tony.)

The other actor who stood out was Charles Weldon who plays Hedley.  The character is a little contrived—Wilson makes him slightly nuts so that he can get away with being oversized and outrageous—but Weldon pulls it off marvelously.  (I will cavil that his accent was a little confusing.  At first I thought the character was West Indian—I saw this play back when it was on Broadway in ‘96, but I don’t recall this aspect of the role—but I realized from the lines that he’s from Louisiana, and it’s Cajun-spiced speech—bayou English, I guess (as opposed to Louis Armstrong “Southern Brooklyn.”  It wasn’t a significant problem.)  Hedley, of course, is the character that connects to the ’80s play in the series (Seven Guitars is set in 1948), King Hedley II.  (One of the women in Seven Guitars, Ruby, played by Cassandra Freeman, is pregnant, and even though Hedley—whose actual first name is King—isn’t the father, Ruby says she’ll name the child after him; that would make the child ”King Hedley II.”)

By the way, there’s a cop series on now, The Wire on Showtime cable [it ran from 2002 to 2008].  Well, the actor who plays Floyd Barton, the focal character of Seven Guitars, is Lance Reddick who plays Lieutenant—now Captain—Daniels in that show.  (He’s the actor who had the accident at the start of the performance.)

Seven Guitars is really a study in Wilson’s work.  He writes terrific characters—characters that actors can just devour—and he captures a milieu, both a moment in time and a place in the world, that sparkles and shines.  Santiago-Hudson and the actors nailed this just about perfectly, I’d say—with tremendous assistance from Richard Hoover’s set.  (I remember complaining about an Arena Stage production of Awake and Sing! back in February that the cast didn’t seem to be living in the play’s world.  That was decidedly not true of this troupe.)  

Wilson also writes soaring dialogue that is absolutely vernacular prose poetry.  It sounds both natural and extraordinary at the same time.  And he conjures wonderful scenes, little moments of truth and life that are simply magic on stage.  But his plots are rudimentary and meandering.  He doesn’t tell stories—which is certainly his right as a dramatist; he shoots word-photographs, snapshots of a certain world.  It can get a little frustrating watching as he lets his plays go off on little side trips or stay put for a little extra while.  (Wilson’s plays aren’t short.  He’s also not an editor.)  And even when his plot does come to fruition, it’s not necessarily a surprise or a particularly significant event.  The journey, not the destination, is his focus.  But that can be hard on the spectator, I think.  (I remember saying to my companion after seeing Fences with James Earl Jones that if it weren’t for Jones’s performance, the play wouldn’t be very interesting because so little actually happens.  I can’t prove it’s related, but shortly after Jones was replaced by Billie Dee Williams on 2 February 1988, the play closed—on 26 June.)

One costume question, however:  When did seamless stockings arrive on the market?  In one scene, one of the women strikes a deliberately provocative pose and asks, “Are my stockings straight?”  But they were seamless, so how could anyone really tell?  In 1948, wouldn’t women still have been wearing stockings with seams?  Small point.

In the end, though, I’m very glad I managed to see the production.  It takes an exceptional production to overcome Wilson’s dramaturgical problems, and this one qualifies, no question. 

The next Wilson at the Signature, which I’m not seeing until December, is Two Trains Running, which I also saw on Broadway (with Laurence Fishburne).  I’ve heard that the regular run at STC was sold out within a few days of opening the sales to the public (since Diana and I subscribe, we get advanced notice to book our seats), the run was extended, and the extension is sold out.  (The regular runs are all $15 seats this season [it’s now up to $30] due to a subsidy the Signature got.  The extensions, however, go for $55 a pop.)   King Hedley II is the third play in the season, and I haven’t seen that one before.  (Actually, I’ve been expecting some theater to announce a presentation of Wilson’s complete cycle since his death, but so far no one I’ve heard about has done so.  My mom told me, though, that the Kennedy Center has announced a series of staged readings of all the plays next year.  [In 1986, Chicago’s Goodman Theatre became the first company in the world to launch productions of the entire 10-play cycle, concluding in 2007 with Radio Golf.  The first company to produce the cycle after Wilson’s death was the Geva Theatre Center in Rochester, New York, which from 2007 to 2011 presented the 10 plays in order of their setting.])

Signature Theatre Company
New York City
3 April 2007

Well, I saw the last of the August Wilson series at the Signature Theatre’s Peter Norton Space Friday night, 30 March [2007].  (I have now seen eight of the ten plays in Wilson’s decalogue of the African-American experience.  I missed Jitney, and Radio Golf, his last play, opens on Broadway later this month for previews.)  I can say that King Hedley II measures up creditably to the two previous Wilson shows at Signature (and Gem of the Ocean at Arena which I saw in February.) in terms of production, and especially the acting.  (Charles Isherwood’s Times review earlier in March, which was a near rave, pointed out that Hedley’s Broadway run had been miscast with Brian Stokes Mitchell, a romantic lead usually appearing in musicals, in the title role.  I can now see how that would throw off the dynamic of the play.  I didn’t see the 2001 Broadway production—this was the only play in the Signature series that I hadn’t seen before—mostly because it only ran two months and I didn’t get to it before it closed.  By many accounts—some critics actually didn’t like it—this production is better an all ways, and I don’t doubt it.)

Though occasional characters do figure in more than one of Wilson’s plays (Sterling Johnson, the ex-con of Two Trains Running, reappears in Radio Golf; Aunt Ester, the focal character of Gem, is mentioned both in this play, in which her death is reported, and in Two Trains—though she doesn’t appear in either of the last two), King Hedley II is the only play that is actually a kind of sequel to a previous one.  Set in 1985 or so, Hedley picks up the story of Ruby (Linda Gravatt) from Seven Guitars, set in 1948.  She had arrived in Pittsburgh’s Hill District from Alabama, pregnant and fleeing a violent situation in which the baby’s father had been killed by a rival.  Living in the house of Louise, she became acquainted with the off-balance Hedley—a Louisianan whose given name was King—and in an act of empathy, decided to name her unborn baby after him as if Hedley were its father.  Thirty-seven years later, Louise, who raised the boy in Ruby’s absence, has died and Ruby has returned to the Hill District—and her son (Russell Hornsby), who has recently been released after seven years in prison for killing a neighborhood antagonist—to a house next door to Canewell (now known as Stool Pigeon; Lou Meyers), a fellow musician of Floyd “Schoolboy” Barton, who also lived in Louise’s house in 1948.  (Canewell/Stool Pigeon is now the slightly unbalanced character, the seer and griot who appears in almost all Wilson’s plays, having become something of a religious fanatic.  “God’s a bad motherfucker!” he warns us every now and then.)  King Hedley II, the title character and focal figure of the play, has rejected Ruby for abandoning him, though he knows “Mama Louise” wasn’t his actual mother.  He does believe, however, that Hedley was his father, and Ruby doesn’t want him to know different.  (This truth will ultimately light the fuse that implodes King’s world.)

King is immediately revealed to be a bitter, angry, self-centered, and violent man and I wondered how Wilson was going to make him the play’s protagonist, even hero, without simply brushing aside the fact that he’s pretty much a bad man.  Aside from having killed another man, essentially for consistently calling him “Champ” when he insists his name is King—in a confrontation born of this conflict, the other man had slashed King’s face and King hunted him down later and shot him numerous times in broad daylight in a barber shop—King makes his money to support his wife and unborn child by selling stolen goods (refrigerators at the moment) and committing armed robbery.  He always carries a Glock automatic pistol (the cousin of the man he killed is looking for him) and at the slightest provocation, intentional or not, bursts out in threats of violence and uncontrolled anger.  (King tells of an incident at school when a teacher grabbed him and he kicked her, after which he was permanently branded “unruly.”  He obviously can’t see it, but that’s an understatement.)  Now, you can psychologize about the roots and causes of King’s temper and tendency to violence—his abandonment, the lack of opportunity, the unfair treatment he’d been subjected to all his life, the heritage of his real father—but in the end, he’s a violent thug (with, given Wilson’s hand in his creation, a poetic tongue).  Yet he’s the center of the play, and it was hard to imagine how Wilson was going to construct a play around him.  Be assured, he does—and it’s not a cheat.

In all of Wilson’s other plays I’ve seen, there’s some kind of redemption at the end.  In some, like Two Trains, everyone pretty much gets what they’ve been chasing after; in others, like Gem, a stormy sea is crossed, a corner turned.  Even in Seven Guitars, in which the action is inexorably leading to the death of Floyd Barton (the play’s a flashback: the opening scene takes place right after his funeral), that event acts as a kind of catalyst for the transformation of other characters.  But Hedley is a tragedy—I think you can call it that, in Wilsonian terms in any case.  No matter what he does, no matter what anyone else does, King is heading for disaster.  He doesn’t get anything right—every choice he makes, no matter what advice he gets, is wrong and you can see him careening toward a bad end, like a runaway car rolling downhill, gaining speed on its way down.  (It is ironic that King wants money for him and his buddy so they can open a video store—a business we know will become doomed in a decade or two.  I suspect Wilson knew that when he wrote the play in 1999.)  The configuration of his end is a surprise, but you know it’s going to be bad.  (I’m loath to reveal the end beyond this in case anyone of you hasn’t seen the play and still might.  It’s so clear King’s fate is going to be bad, telling you that isn’t a spoiler, but any more might be.)

What Wilson seems to be doing is including in his panorama of life in black America a picture of the less redemptive side of that world—the violent, brutish, nasty aspect that results in some cases from the never-ending sense of never being allowed to get up off your knees.  The Reagonomic 80s, the decade of greed that drove the permanent wedge between the working people and the Midas-like CEO’s, is the perfect matrix.  “I used to be worth twelve hundred dollars during slavery,” King laments. “Now I’m worth $3.35 an hour.  I’m going backwards.  Everybody else moving forward.”  

Even King’s legit job, working deconstruction, is a trap.  His (African-American) boss has put in the lowest bid for a demolition job, but loses the contract because the contractor says the bid’s too low!  (The demolition man is in court to force the contractor to honor the rules, and he actually wins, but it comes too late for King.)  Even the small things seem part of the conspiracy: King goes to Sears to get his wife’s photo taken, but when he returns to collect the portrait, the clerk tells him there’s no record of the job, and the receipt King shows him doesn’t mean anything.  It’s not an excuse: Wilson never apologizes or excuses King, but he does show us the increments by which that man becomes part of society.  And just to clinch the fact that Wilson doesn’t put the blame for everything on white society or the establishment, King’s death doesn’t come at the hands of any of those forces—it comes from one of his own.  And it comes out of his own past, his heritage, you might say.

The acting and directing (by Derrick Sanders, founder of Chicago’s Congo Square Theatre where his production of Seven Guitars won a Joseph Jefferson Award) are, once again, excellent.  Wilson has lots of dramaturgical problems, as I’ve observed before.  (Hedley, though it has more plot than most other Wilson plays, still clocks in at just under 3 hours.)  And while they’re not insignificant deficiencies, he still writes plays that are more than worthy of attention because of what he says and the wonderful language in which he says it.  His characters are so vivid, and his individual scenes so powerful that he attracts top actors, making the productions special pleasures for audiences.  (In a break with the trend I spotted up to now, this cast has no actors who list either The Wire or Homicide as credits. [I mention this in my reports on Two Trains Running and Gem of the Ocean, both in part 2 of this Wilson archive series, 19 March.]  All three of the other Wilsons I saw this season had at least one actor who worked those shows.  One actor, however, did appear in an earlier Wilson at the Signature: Stephen McKinley Henderson plays Elmore, Ruby’s former lover for whom she left Pittsburgh and King, but he played Red Carter, one of Floyd Barton’s musicians, in Seven Guitars.  Ironically, Mister (Curtis McClarin), King’s running buddy in this play, is Carter’s son.  Henderson also appeared as Stool Pigeon on Broadway.) 

While everyone gives a strong performance, the standout has to be Russell Hornsby as King.  While he assuredly doesn’t play for sympathy, his most remarkable achievement in the role is that he manages to make King seem like a reasonable man until he erupts.  (Early in the play, and several times afterwards, he asks other characters if they see a halo around his head.  This is the residue of a dream he had—but, of course, no one sees anything.  That he takes the vision seriously says something about who King might have been if things—everything—had been different.)  This is no Bill Sykes villain, no psychotic bully, but a man with a hair trigger.  It doesn’t take much to set him off, but until something does, he’s just a rough guy in a rough part of town.  (It is easy to see why an actor like Brian Stokes Mitchell would be wrong for this role.  It’d have been a little like seeing Cary Grant switch parts with, say, Charles Bronson.  In Kabuki terms, King is an aragoto—rough style—part, but Mitchell is a wagoto—soft style—actor.  I also can’t see Leslie Uggams as King’s mother, Ruby, played with an earthy force here by Lynda Gravatt.  If a star were needed, Della Reese would have been a better choice.)  Once again, however, the actors each carved out a distinct, credible, unique, and wholly believable person—I don’t want to say “character.” 

Speaking of acting: for some reason I was really focusing on the dialogue this time.  I don’t know why—it wasn’t as if the cast weren’t doing anything else—but I was listening to the actors speak Wilson’s lines.  I believe I’ve compared Wilson’s language to that of Chekhov, Ibsen, and Tennessee Williams before.  They all share something in common: They write dialogue that at first sounds like ordinary speech, but isn’t.  They all write a heightened, a lyric Realism.  Spectators think they are hearing common speech, but no one really talks that eloquently, that expressively, that aptly, that poetically.  (This was a quality that was missing in Gem of the Ocean, I noted. [See part 2 of thus series, 19 March.])  Of course, the actors have to sense this because they have to voice these extraordinary words without either crossing over into “declaiming verse” or falling into Mamet-speak, maintaining the illusion that they are talking ordinary street talk.  Obviously, Wilson’s language is one of his main attractions for actors, and Signature’s casts have been excellent at doing this.  (There are some magnificent monologues in Hedley—make a note, all you acting teachers with African-American students!  Look especially at Tonya’s blistering explanation of why she doesn’t want to bear King’s son.) 

But listening specifically to the lines confirms something that makes the work of writers like Wilson really exceptional.  When I first taught writing, the text we were using made a point that has always stayed with me for some reason: “While we think of eloquence as being expressed in literary language, it is really the spirit that counts, not the words.”  The example the book had given for eloquence was a passage by Jesse Jackson in which he used the most commonplace diction to express the loftiest sentiments.  That’s what Wilson, Williams, Chekhov, and Ibsen do (taking into account for the last two that they were writing in the 19th century and we read them in translations): The words they use are perfectly ordinary, their syntax is simple—which is why we think we’re listening to common speech—but they assemble those elements to produce the most amazing images and sounds!  Now, I don’t think this is a revelation, of course.  Theater people—and I suspect literary people, too—recognize it.  Actors and directors certainly do.  But I do think that it’s an underestimatedly awesome achievement.  It comes close to pure magic.  Maybe “close” is an unnecessary equivocation.

I need to make a brief note about the set.  David Gallo, who also designed the Broadway sets (and Radio Golf as well, it seems), conceived a hyperrealistic backyard of two decrepit houses—one missing its top floor.  The two yards, Canewell’s and Louise’s, are contiguous and nothing but stony dirt, bound on two sides by rusted chain-link fences.  (King insists on planting flowers in a plot of it, but it’s not soil—it’s dirt.  Nonetheless, he coaxes life from the seeds!)  It is Wilson’s blasted heath, the barren terrain of Beckett’s Godot (without even the bare tree).  It is perfectly evocative of the dilapidated world and lives of King and his companions.  (Canewell/Stool Pigeon fills his house with discarded newspapers, his historical records—You got to know this!—like a Collyer brother; but his yard remains barren even as he buries Aunt Ester’s cat there, near King’s flower patch.  The flowers poke through the dusty earth—and the cat gives signs of resurrection!)  

A question I had, however—not especially important, I suppose—is whether this was supposed to be the same backyard as depicted in Seven Guitars.  I figure it is, but Gallo didn’t attempt to duplicate Richard Hoover’s set as it might have become 37 years later.  There’s no real reason he needed to, if I’m even right—though costume designer Constanza Romero, Wilson’s widow, says that it’s “practically the same back yard, only forty years later”; notes in a theater newsletter report that an urban renewal in the 1950’s known as the “Pittsburgh Renaissance” displaced many Hill residents, and maybe the old house has been demolished—but it might have been interesting, since most of the audience for Hedley would be Signature season subscribers and would have seen the earlier play, to make the connection.

I’m often a sucker for gimmicks, as you’ve no doubt discovered—especially clever ones.  Note the use by the Theater for a New Audience of the computer monitors to display the usual cell phone warning in Italian, English, and Hebrew/Yiddish before its production of Merchant of Venice [see my report, “TFANA’s Merchant of Venice (2007),” 28 February 2011].  Director Sanders has done his own version of this.  Using a radio broadcasting a local Pittsburgh station playing 80s rock music during preset, scene changes, and intermission, the DJ breaks in before opening curtain and, as if announcing a song or selling a product, makes the cell phone announcement.

Just a footnote, which some of you may already know:  The Kennedy Center in Washington is planning to do all ten of Wilson’s plays of this series in staged readings over a month in March ’08.  Apparently Signature intended to produce all ten of the plays, plus a new one, Wilson’s first after the completion of his decalogue, but when the playwright died suddenly in 2005, those plans were changed.  (In fact, Signature almost had to cancel the August Wilson Season altogether.)  So, unless another theater jumps in before the Kennedy Center gets underway, this will be the first Wilson marathon since he completed the cycle.

[I hope you found these old reports interesting—and maybe even illuminating.  Please come back on 19 March for the conclusion of this two-part series, “From My August Wilson Archive,” for the reports on Two Trains Running and Gem of the Ocean.  (For those interested, at the end of my 24 February report on Jitney, I appended a list of the 10 plays in Wilson’s Century Cycle with pertinent dates--setting, première, and Broadway début.  There’s also a brief discussion in the report on the decalogue as a theatrical and literary accomplishment.)]