Wakey, Wakey

by Maya Phillips

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Monday February 27, 2017

January LaVoy and Michael Emerson
January LaVoy and Michael Emerson  

With the recent discovery of a batch of new earth-like planets that may be able to support life, now seems as good a time as any for some big existential questions. It seems, then, that Signature Theatre's production of Will Eno's "Wakey, Wakey" has come at just the right time.

Eno's play opens with his protagonist, an ill man known only as "Guy," lying facedown on the floor before he lifts his head to ask, "Is it now? I thought I had more time." And in those two short sentences, we have the conceit of the play: a man grapples with questions of time, mortality, joy, regret, sorrow (and some other abstract nouns) before his death.

For the majority of the 75-minute runtime of the play, Guy sits in a wheelchair on the stage alone, talking directly to the audience, occasionally prompting them to meditate on images in a slideshow that appears on the wall alongside him or consider some existential questions in their own lives.

It's a risky move, presenting a play that so heavily relies on one character to bear its heft in a one-sided dialogue that's somewhere between a serious meditation on human life and a curious stand-up routine -- because, yes, despite the not-so-cheery topics of death and the passing of time, there are nonetheless moments of humor in this play, droll as they may be. And as for the character who bears its heft, "Wakey, Wakey" has a necessarily strong lead in Will Emerson, of "Lost" fame, as its nameless protagonist.

Emerson's Guy is endearing and easy to empathize with, particularly in the moments when he is most vulnerable and awkward when he flounders with his own sense of what he and his life amount to in the end. Emerson just as easily manages his character's wry sense of humor, the comments and jokes that feel pieced together moment by moment rather than scripted.

But that's just what's interesting about this play -- it is scripted, as it likes to remind its audience. After a confused pause, our protagonist says, somewhat defeatedly, "What do you make of the fact that this event, painstakingly scripted, rehearsed, designed and directed, features someone saying, 'I don't know exactly what to say to you'?" These moments of meta-awareness make sense for a play that aims to scrutinize the present moment. Everything, down to the staging, lights and sound design, gestures toward this goal.

The set, featuring a freestanding door, a pile of clothes and taped-up boxes, is ordinary and impersonal, the unadorned space hinting at either at some beginning or end -- moving in, moving out, or perhaps something more morbid.

Tacked to the wall is a calendar, a gesture toward the play's fixation on time. The lights shift, brighten and change color in accordance with the protagonist's speech and ruminations while the sounds that don't align with Guy's reflections are everyday sounds taken from real-life, almost indistinguishable from the real thing: the sound of traffic outside the theater, a cell phone alert, all contributing to the way "Wakey, Wakey" blurs the line between what is real and what is scripted.

After all, "Wakey, Wakey," for all its planned scripted-ness, is very much about control, or lack thereof. We watch Guy struggle to get through the play as though it's a planned presentation; he shuffles through his note cards and clicks through a prepared slideshow, trying to arrive at some end even he isn't too sure about.

And when Lisa (presented with ease and tenderness by January Lavoy, a remarkable counterbalance to Emerson's Guy) appears to help Guy with his final moments, Guy is forced to come to terms with the amount of control he has over his mortality and the lives of his loved ones after he's gone.

It all can amount to too much in the end, however. Even with the talents of Emerson and Lavoy to guide the production, the play still struggles in its tonal shifts, overreaching in its attempts to bridge its moments of cynicism and fear with its tender moments of redemption.

Eno undoubtedly loves to show his hand in this play, but sometimes it is that very hand that obstructs our view; the metaphors and large statements on life and time feel less than real in the play's naturalistic way of presenting them, and the tonal shifts, rather than being navigated with subtle and gradual emotional turns, are signaled with the loudness of traffic lights and road signs.

But all that isn't to say that "Wakey, Wakey" doesn't have its moments; in fact, it has plenty. And ultimately, despite how somber it may occasionally get, the play indulges as much in hope as it does in fear or pain or confusion, or even more so. The ending, an over-the-top show of sensory overload that stands in stark contrast to the demure tone of the rest of the play, aims to leave the audience with a sense of celebration and joy. Subtle, it's not.

Eno's moment of catharsis is more of a spectacle than an emotional release, but it's difficult to regard without even the slightest grin. Life is complicated, right? Hopefully, at the end, there will be some surprises -- and some ham-fisted joy.

"Wakey, Wakey" runs through April 2 at the Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 W. 42 St. For tickets or information, call 212-244-7529 or visit www.signaturetheatre.org.