Despite their relative youth, a couple of new, hot playwrights have death on their minds this overly warm winter. Last week, Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’s “Everybody” opened at the Pershing Square Signature Center. And on Monday, also at the Center, Will Eno opened “Wakey, Wakey.” But if you have just one death play to see this season, make it “Everybody.”
Michael Emerson spends most of “Wakey, Wakey” sitting up in a wheelchair, alone on stage. A caregiver (January LaVoy) arrives late in the play to chit-chat, put a wet towel on his forehead, and check his pulse. Emerson’s Guy has suffered a stroke, though it appears to be a stroke of a very unusual nature. He talks just fine. He can walk. Shuffle is more like it. He does have trouble swallowing liquids, and foods are a whole other challenge.
If this sounds totally grim, it’s not. Emerson’s remarkably spontaneous performance suggests Pee-Wee Herman after a stroke, as if he’s making up the words on the spot. What better impression can an actor give us?
What’s great for an actor, however, is not so wonderful for a playwright. The stream of consciousness in “Wakey, Wakey” appears to be the state of Guy’s mind, no longer running on all cylinders, and sometimes it’s Eno being less than cogent.
Writing about death should not create this much dead air in the theater. Eno acknowledges the dramatic void when the caregiver looks at her watch to tell us, “It’s 8:56.” Even with a running time of 75 minutes, “Wakey, Wakey” inspires wristwatch-checking in the dark like few other plays you will see this year.
The caregiver’s very-left-field announcement is typical of Eno’s writing. The dying man makes several digs at the conventions of the theater, but it’s an empty irreverence that’s ultimately nothing more a playwright being smug. Also coy is the way Eno mixes pop culture — baby pictures, a YouTube video of screaming animals, a “Jeopardy”-inspired word game — with deep, deep pronouncements about the meaning of life.
Guy opines on how extreme bravery is generally misidentified when it first happens: “When you’re around it, it just seems like kindness, even happiness, like a little kid eating ice cream. It’s very quiet, true bravery.”
The caregiver even has a few of her own. She recalls a needlepoint pillow from her mother’s living room. It read: “A dog knows it’s not a cat and a giraffe knows it’s a giraffe. But you braying squealing asses do not know you are asses.”
If either of these aphorisms hit a chord, see “Wakey, Wakey.”
Eno, who also directs this Signature Theater production, gives Guy a big send-off into the life hereafter, showering the theater with all the stuff that made Guy happy in life. Is that’s what it’s all about? The little moments?
Scenic designer Walt Spangler, lighting designer Jason Lyons, and video designer Rocco DiSanti come up with the kind of spectacle that might have greeted kids at Michael Jackson’s Neverland ranch. Is this crap what gave Guy happiness? Maybe Eno chose the wrong guy to watch die.