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Wakey, Wakey

Will Eno’s new play, his third in his residence at Signature Theatre, is an extended meditation on life and death asking the question: Is it worth it?

Michael Emerson and January LaVoy in a scene from Will Eno’s “Wakey Wakey” (Photo credit: Joan Marcus)

Joel Benjamin

Joel Benjamin, Critic

Emily Dickinson, in very few words, dealt with the surreal moments before death in her “A Fly Buzzed When I Died.” Succinct, harrowing, yet beautiful.

Will Eno’s Wakey, Wakey takes the same theme but tosses in many surprisingly funny and strange obstacles in the form of monologues, odd videos, breaking the fourth wall (many times), and adding a caring character (Lisa, played with exceptional warmth and kindness by January LaVoy) to gently guide Guy (Michael Emerson in an outstanding exhibition of killed, complex acting) into the beyond.  Directed by the playwright, Wakey, Wakey is an extended meditation on life and death:  Is it all worth it?  According to Eno, in the last analysis, yes, it is.

Christine Jones’ set turns the stage of the Signature Center’s Griffin Theatre into an indefinite place with cardboard cartons strewn about before an angled wall.  A free-standing door mysteriously stands at the rear.

Videos (by Peter Nigrini) are shown on the blank upper area of the wall.   David Lander’s lighting makes the simple set design seem more complex and helps express the moods Guy is expressing.   Michael Krass’ simple costumes—colorless, but witty leisure-wear for Guy and health aide neatness for Lisa—are perfect.

Michael Emerson and January LaVoy in a scene from Will Eno’s “Wakey Wakey” (Photo credit: Joan Marcus)

First found lying face down on the stage, Guy acts surprised at the presence of an audience—or is he just relieved at still being around?  While a video is shown, he manages to get into a wheelchair and continue his choppy narrative, ruminating on life.  He mentions the tick-tock of a clock, but realizes, amusingly, it is a sound so many young people don’t know.  He looks at the cartons and muses on drawers full of papers and forgettable stuff that seem to accumulate unbidden in our lives.

He even makes a probably unintended reference to Dickinson’s poem speaking about “coffee cakes and casseroles” brought by friends slowly disappearing, bringing him closer to death.  A distant siren also reroutes his thoughts.

He advises us to enjoy life in all ways and think of that “particular person.”  He contemplates the effectiveness of certain words:  joy, happiness, clarity, etc.   He uses a remote to start a slide show of his life beginning with a baby and on to childhood and youth.  He expresses his current feelings of anxiety with a metaphor of packing for a vacation in an unknown place, not knowing what the weather or social conditions will be.

By the time Lisa appears, Guy has expounded on the complexity of modern life and its joys and distresses, guided by a combination of wit, a set of index cards, and the witty videos.  She appears like a sweet, angelic presence that grounds and focuses Guy in preparation for the inevitable.

Michael Emerson in a scene from Will Eno’s “Wakey Wakey” (Photo credit: Joan Marcus)

At first, Guy doesn’t quite remember who she is, but she gently prods his memory and brings out a bottle of bubbles.  He admits loving bubbles, but is still bemused.  This is her way of getting in his good graces, comforting him with wet towels, philosophizing about loss and performing new age rituals.

The gentle inevitableness of the ending brings tears and smiles.

Wakey, Wakey is Will Eno at his surreal, troubling, beautiful best, a play both challenging and easily absorbed.  He truly approaches the unapproachable:  the meaning of life.

Wakey, Wakey (extended through April 2, 2017)

Alice Griffin Jewel Box Theatre at the Pershing Square Signature Center,

480 West 42nd Street, in Manhattan

For tickets, call 212-744-7529 or visit http://www.signaturetheatre.org

Running time:  80 minutes with no intermission

Joel Benjamin
About Joel Benjamin (165 Articles)
JOEL BENJAMIN was a child performer on Broadway and danced with leading modern dance and ballet companies. Joel has been attending theater, ballet and opera performances ever since childhood, becoming quite opinionated over the years. He was the founder and artistic director of the American Chamber Ballet and subsequently was massage therapist to the stars before becoming a reviewer and memoirist. He is a member of the Outer Critics Circle.

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