March 11, 2017

Meditations on Death: "Everybody," Wakey, Wakey" and "Evening at the Talk House"

Grief is strange. We deal with the loss of someone we love as best we can but sometimes, even months later, the lingering sorrow continues to inform the choices we make. 

I don't know if all the shows now running at Signature Theatre's Pershing Square Center were written or scheduled before or after Signature's founding artistic director James Houghton succumbed to a yearlong battle against stomach cancer last August, but Everybody, Wakey, Wakey and Evening at the Talk House seem to reflect a state of mourning and together compose a requiem for a fallen and much beloved leader.

Each play grieves in its own way. Everybody, Branden Jacobs-Jenkins' adaptation of the 15th century morality play Everyman, uses humor and meta-theatrics to dull the pain of the loss. As in the original, Death arrives to carry off the title character but agrees to wait until he can find a companion who will accompany Everybody into the afterlife and vouch for him on Judgment Day.

The problem is that no one—allegorical characters representing friends, family, the things he's acquired—wants to go, forcing Everybody (and the rest of us) to reconsider the choices made and the priorities set during a lifetime.

Jacobs-Jenkins and his terrific director Lila Neugebauer heighten the universality of it all by staging a lottery each night that determines which members of the cast will play the central and supporting roles. The actors are as diverse as they could make them—black, white, Asian, Hispanic, old, young, short, tall, chubby, svelte, male and female. You know, everybody.

It's an incredible challenge for the actors to play different parts each night (click here to read about how they do it) but they pulled it off with such aplomb when my theatergoing buddy Bill and I saw the show that we couldn't imagine anyone other than the wonderful Lakisha Michelle May as Everybody.

It's a 600-year-old spoiler to say that our protagonist eventually finds a companion in the good deeds he has done throughout his life. Jacobs-Jenkins tweaks that ending a bit and the result can be interpreted as both a loving farewell to the departed and a cautionary reminder for those of us still on this side of the grave.

Will Eno has acknowledged the connection between Houghton's death and his play Wakey, Wakey (click here to read what he had to say). And he takes a characteristically philosophical and esoteric approach in this meditation on death. His play, which he also directed, opens with a man lying prone on the ground as a voice-over, presumably expressing the thoughts in the man's mind, says "Is this it? I thought I had more time."

For the next 75 minutes, the man, identified in the Playbill as Guy (another variation on Everyman?) sits in a wheelchair and reviews random moments from his life as its end inexorably approaches. Some of the moments play out in projections on a big screen. Others are related in the monologues Guy addresses to the audience.

Michael Emerson does a fine job conveying the mixture of apprehension, bewilderment and remorse Guy is experiencing. Bill, and many others in our audience, was totally moved by his textured performance.

But the moments dragged for me and confirmed my suspicion that (after having seen five of his plays) I'm just not an Eno gal. So little so that I skipped the cake and punch, deliberate nods to the traditional funeral repast and the current fascination with immersive theater, that awaited us as we walked out of the theater auditorium.

Evening at the Talk House isn't actually a Signature production but comes from The New Group, a frequent tenant at its Pershing Square Center home. And death isn't this 90-minute play's central theme but its author Wallace Shawn has set Evening at the Talk House in a dystopian future in which art is under assault and the grieving is for theater itself.

It opens as a group of former colleagues gather at one of their old hangouts for a reunion several years after they worked on the final theater production in the country. They reminisce about the good old days and eventually begin to confess about the compromises they've made to survive in the hollow present.

It's a Wally Shawn play and so it's a talky play but under Scott Elliott's solid direction, an expert cast brings it almost to life (click here for a group interview with them). It's hard to single any one actor out of an ensemble that includes Claudia Sher, Larry Pine, Jill Eikenberry and the author himself but I do have to give an extra hand to Matthew Broderick.

Playing against type as a bitter former theater director who has found a refuge in doing what sounds like a tacky TV series, Broderick shakes off the lethargy that dragged down so many of his post-The Producers performances.

Shawn isn't given to idle sentimentality. But like the other two plays, his makes the case that the best legacy any of us can leave behind is that we tried to make the world a better place.

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