To wake, perhaps to dream

Will Eno's "Wakey Wakey," at Portland Playhouse, ponders life and death but drifts into what feels like nothing so important.

Someone is born, and someone dies.  We know this, of course, as the essential arc of any human life. But we also tend to take particular note of these events when they occur to those around us, as part of the cyclical arc, if you will, of extended families; the way the succession of generations seems to bunch its milestones together, the baby’s arrival hard upon the grandparents passing.

Such is the common — though one shouldn’t say ordinary — life circumstance that inspired playwright Will Eno to write Wakey Wakey, being staged through Oct. 21 at Portland Playhouse under the direction of Gretchen Corbett.

Wordplay of many sorts, sometimes direct and jokey, sometimes remarkably subtle and layered, is a major component of Eno’s writing style, and I’m guessing the title of this play is a play on notions of awakening to the world, being wakeful in it, and being ritually remembered after we’ve left it. Whatever the case, the play itself is a very peculiar sort of last testament.

In Will Eno’s “Wakey Wakey,” Michael O’Connell (front) heads gently into that good night, comforted by Nikki Weaver. Photo: Brud Giles.

Michael O’Connell stars here as Guy (not to be confused with the protagonist of Eno’s Title and Deed, which Imago staged in Portland this summer; that guy’s called “Man”). When the lights first go up, he’s face down on the floor, clad in pajama bottoms. “Is it now?” he cries out to no one in particular. “I thought I had more time!”

I imagine everyone feels that way, when the time comes that they don’t have much more. But it’s not as if Guy hasn’t had some warning. He’s in such a scrupulously innocuous, inoffensively drab place — pale gray walls with white trim, a wall calendar of scenic photography, a few potted plants on the floor, and several large brown packing boxes — that it couldn’t be much other than an anteroom in a hospital or senior center. Or, as those opening lines suggest, a hospice facility.

Once he’s had a chance to gather himself, put on a bit more clothing and get seated in his wheelchair, he talks directly to the audience. He doesn’t tell us his life story, or make any grand pronouncements, or espouse some sage philosophy. He alludes, early on, to “the secret plans and ideas of people that time ran out on,” and tells us that we’re “here to say goodbye, and maybe hopefully to get better at saying hello.”

He doesn’t get much more specific than that. He thumbs through flash cards, reading prompts from some of them, admitting he can’t recall what he’d intended others to be about. He shows some slides, makes some self-referential comments about the theatrical setting and technical elements, tosses off little aphoristic life lessons and light-and-shadow bon mots (“Time is your friend. And time is your enemy. You can decide which. For awhile.”) He makes asides that work like little mirrors on his own thought process (“A joke would be so funny right now,” he says amid a pause). It’s a Will Eno play, so a linear story or a readily reducible message aren’t the point.

In brilliant, inventive monologues such as Title and Deed and especially Thom Pain (based on nothing), and even in more conventional ensemble pieces such as Middletown, the wry humor, the intentional pretzel-logic, the stealthy poignance, the piecemeal accrual of meaning and impact, all work in part by the sheer energy of Eno’s word-wizardry and idiosyncratic outlook. In Wakey Wakey he comes across as less of a theatrical and linguistic trickster, primarily because the tone here is more muted — not more mature, necessarily, certainly not somber, but…calm. And that seems to rob the play of some essential fuel.

Instead of gleefully turning cliches on their heads to reveal fresh perspectives, here Eno seems to light on trifles as if they are treasures. “We probably take almost everything in the universe for granted,” Guy says, in what’s probably meant to be a conveyance of gentle wisdom but which, upon reflection, dissolves into banality. The notion that those who have died aren’t really gone as long as they are remembered, though delivered here with real feeling, is a yet-more-obvious commonplace.

Wearing a crown of frosty white hair and a gentle demeanor that might feel mischievous if it weren’t so weary, O’Connell makes Guy endearing yet enigmatic, his voice taking on an almost sing-song lilt at times, somehow at once cheerful and beseeching. Guy eventually is joined by a visitor named Lisa (Nikki Weaver, with a bright, serene affect), who provides quiet comforts. Both are strong, but the script leads them nowhere much.

For a time things seems to build toward a softer, perhaps deeper kind of emotional engagement than in earlier Eno works, but that slips away as the show’s final quarter grows too diffuse. Guy grows slower in his speech, less organized in his thoughts. The whimsical loses ground to the melancholy, but worse, to a feeling of aimlessness. Then what might have been a poignant closing moment is thrown into disarray by a celebratory coda that’s meant (presumably) to encapsulate the wild irony in the juxtaposition of life and death, grief and joy, possibility and memory. It’s a tough enough gambit to pull off in terms of tone, and Eno’s choice of music for this — mediocre quasi-psychedelic indie-rock by the band Olivia Tremor Control — is probably an insurmountable obstacle, a poor fit in terms of emotional suggestion (it’s neither jubilant nor poignant, just messy), aptness for the character , audience familiarity, what-have-you.

Perhaps however much time we’ve had, we’ll want the end to feel more meaningful than this.

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