The Meaning of Life, Plus Bubble Machine: Review of ‘Wakey, Wakey’
The celebrated playwright Will Eno returns to the New York stage with ‘Wakey, Wakey,’ a playful and searing meditation on living a life fully to its end.
The completion of the phrase “Wakey, wakey,” encouraging someone to stir from slumber, is “rise and shine.” And it is only at the end of Will Eno’s 75-minute play of the same title that the completion of the phrase is realized, stunningly and surprisingly, on stage.
The rest of this arresting, disquieting piece, which is also directed by Eno, is a series of jagged pauses, anguish, and sporadic counsel directed at us, the audience about life, hope, death, and connection.
If that sounds tricky to watch and baffling, it is—and yet you hang on every word.
Anyone who saw Eno’s much-hailed, award-garlanded 2014 Broadway play, The Realistic Joneses—as well as Middletown and Thom Pain (based on nothing)—will note similarities of theme, structure, and setting here: the accretion of fleeting detail, the spareness of language, the quiet desperation and optimism, the stubborn persistence, of humans trying to marshal an understanding of what it means to be, and to live—even as they face death.
Yes, the jolly big stuff.
Eno is currently a resident playwright at Signature Theatre, which is presenting this production.
As you take your seats at Wakey, Wakey, the strains of Ravel’s “Boléro” play over and over again; the play opening within what seems like the home of Guy (Michael Emerson, star of Person of Interest and who played the diabolically cunning Benjamin Linus from Lost). Boxes litter the floor, heaps of clothes or sheets too. Guy is in a wheelchair, and seems to be in some pain. He is also waspish and wry. We can kind of hear him, and kind of not. “Is it now?” he asks us. “I thought I had more time.”
We are Guy’s sounding board and also his echo chamber, and so the reality of our surrounds and the reality of performance are efficiently blurred from the outset. He is a mystery: sad, elated, mystical, practical, romantic, and utterly elusive.
Guy’s words suggest he knows this is a theater, yet he is also rooted in the stage reality of being in his own home. He shows us that he can walk, unsteadily.
He seems ill, very ill, but also in search of something and he wants to impart something to us, and so he bids us to join him on this one-man magical mystery tour. Emerson skillfully captures someone trapped by a failing body, bounded by pain, and yet resolutely focused on words, puzzles, meaning, and hope.
A screen on the wall, which he operates with a remote control, has puzzle games on it. Guy asks us to imagine someone special to us. They can be alive or dead. We are asked to close our eyes, and recall them. His commands are like a gruffer self-realization tape, a gravelly-toned, dry Louise Hay. Yellow lights, like a blistering, immersive bath, are trained upon us.
Sounds, which could be coming from outside the theater—like a siren—and within it, like a mobile phone or the brakes of a truck, burst into variously modulated life.
He seems frustrated. Whatever is unfolding for him should have been something else, but the tick-tock of the clock continues. You wonder if he is facing his mortality. He wonders about all the loss, emotions, and consoling casseroles given to those affected by the 100,000 deaths there have been in the world that day.
“We’re here to say good-bye and maybe hopefully also get better at saying hello,” says Guy. “To celebrate Life, if that doesn’t sound too passive-aggressive.”
Guy tells us, or whoever he thinks he’s addressing, that we’ll be there for over three hours, but we know it’s 75 minutes, and later he tells us he was just toying with us. “Now you’ve suddenly got two free hours to do whatever you want with. Hooray! Call the grandkids. Have sex with the wrong person. Just… enjoy.”
There are some sounds he thinks are uplifting, but sound to us vaguely menacing. There are pictures of (presumably) Guy as a baby he zaps on to the screen, and as a toddler. He asks that we consider “someone way back who nudged you a couple of degrees in this direction or that, and now, after all that time and distance, the whole trajectory of your life, because of that tiny change, is unrecognizably different.”
A favored video plays of animals screaming—a whole crazy cornucopia of them, apart from a random shot of Pavarotti singing. This he and we find funny, but soon he seems to be in pain again, struggling to say something, or trying to formulate his thoughts—it’s hard to tell.
Eno by not making the story or Guy easy to comprehend makes it that much more engrossing.
Sometimes, just when it feels too slight, Eno inserts a piece of mischievous whimsy, or sharp observation, or, at one point, the sudden, mournful strains of “Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head.” Although Guy still seems sad he is also determined to tell us about the wonders around him, and about how to safeguard one’s mental and spiritual health—as much for him as for us. “A million miracles at work in this room, right now, easily. You can almost hear them. Wowee. Your body produced 5 million red blood cells in the time since I said ‘Wowee.’ You will produce two swimming pools’ worth of saliva in your life. Use it wisely.”
It sounds so positive, but we still don’t know the particularities and severity of Guy’s plight. It seems terminal.
Later, someone we assume to be Guy’s nurse, Lisa (January Lavoy) comes to see him. Warm, brisk and efficient, Lisa, sensing all the hurt around Guy, performs what seems to be a cleaning dance of a kind around his sleeping form.
Lisa wants Guy to find some peace. She sits and listens to his fractured stories, and in one exchange talks of the students he taught to swim and dive. “They said you really gave them things they could use. Courage and all that, but also good, regular things, like paper plates of food.”
Has Guy injured himself diving, you wonder. It is not made clear.
He and Lisa—Lavoy endows her with a delightful warmth, but also a mirroring reticence to Guy’s—talk about life and the afterlife, the continuum of love shared between people. And, just as one suspected at the outset, Guy’s mortality is itself nigh.
But that is not the end. The end is another video, accompanied by the song, “Love Athena,” by psychedelic rock band The Olivia Tremor Control. And suddenly the theatre fills with bubbles, disco lights, and there are fortune cookies and stress balls to take home. Ultimately, the instruction to remain “wakey wakey” to life and its vicissitudes is ours to follow, and not squander.
Guy had been telling the truth from the outset: he was saying goodbye to life by celebrating it, reveling in it. Wakey, Wakey is not an unfettered celebration though. It is, like Guy, moody, meditative, fractured. But “rise and shine” it most certainly does: it’s one of the most unexpected life lessons from an unexpectedly uplifting play.
Wakey, Wakey runs until March 26th at The Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 West 42nd Street, NYC. Book tickets here.