With Wakey, Wakey, playwright Will Eno has created an almost-one-man show that seems to be a 90-minute vigil hosted by a dying man who wants to say some profound things before he goes, and yet really isn't sure what to say.
"I thought I would have more time," says the nameless character played by Tony Hale. He says it twice — once in a comical opening flash, and again near the play's anti-climactic end. And the line seems to cut to the heart of what Eno is after in this experimental, disjointed, and highly unusual piece that is nonetheless moving at multiple points.
"I don’t know what to say to you," Hale's character says as he addresses the audience in pajamas, from a wheelchair. "We’re here to say goodbye and hopefully get a little better at saying hello," he also says, occasionally referring to index cards, and several times cueing up unexplained images and videos on a projection screen in a set that resembles a high school auditorium. (One montage of screaming animals is particularly funny and effective when he sums it up as, "Welcome to the second part of your life.")
It should be noted that the play has an opening act — a new short play by Eno called The Substitution which seems to share some thematic echoes with Wakey, Wakey, and which takes place in a classroom at a community college. A teacher, Ms. Forester, launches into a moving existential monologue while trying to explain an act of protest that several of the students witnessed her performing — and one learns that her perspective on life has changed following a brush with death.
The actress who plays Ms. Forester, Kathryn Smith-McGlynn, also appears on stage toward the end of Wakey, Wakey as Lisa, a character with a nurse-like presence who appears only to arrive to offer Hale's character some final comfort.
We do not know right away that he is ill — there is only the fact of the wheelchair, and a passing reference in his monologue to the joys of "solid food" — and we never learn the specifics of his diagnosis, prognosis, or anything really. The entire presentation that he gives to the audience, breaking the fourth wall from the start and occasionally telling everyone to close their eyes and imagine something, may in fact be an imagined one. One gets the sense that this character understands that time is running out, and the occasion demands some sort of ritual or prepared remarks, but he's coming up short at every turn.
Maybe you should appreciate every hour of every day, learn to be constantly present and grateful, he says. Or maybe you shouldn't and that can be exhausting and perhaps you should just do as you like. There is a lot of this equivocating in Eno's play, almost to the point of frustration. And yet, questions about time and life's purpose or meaning shouldn't be so simply answered. It's moving and meaningful, Eno seems to be saying, just to see someone try, and see them come up short.
We are not meant to feel sad for this man, and we learn almost nothing about him at all, which may be the biggest weak spot in the play. Specificity and backstory breeds emotion, and our emotional investment in him is thin after 90 minutes. He is just an anonymous stringer of thoughts, the leader of an unstructured and not always compelling workshop that we never signed up for who never quite gets to the point.
There is something lovely and real about Hale's performance, nonetheless, and the solipsistic words he's given to say often bleed into poetry. With the sly humor of the talented comedic actor he has proven himself to be on shows like Arrested Development and Veep, he seems to be teasing the audience with a potential payoff the whole time he's on stage. When asked in an interview for the play's program what he hopes audiences take away from Wakey, Wakey, Hale says, "What if I said 'Nothing'?"
But therein lies the trouble — Wakey, Wakey comes to what should be an evocative, resonant end with a visually powerful gesture, but it doesn't feel like the play has earned it when it arrives. We've patiently listened to a man talk his way around his own life's importance, and its brevity, and we seem to be there to celebrate him. But we aren't ever given the tools with which to do that. And he also loses us in his pondering a few times, just like friends and relatives do in real life. I think I just wish that unlike a relative's pondering, this work of art had a bit more polish and wasn't so proud of vagueness.
'Wakey, Wakey' plays at A.C.T.'s Geary Theater through February 16. Find tickets here.