Send me to all your plays about death. I will gobble them down like a furrowed brow Pac-Man, sitting forward in my seat with my fingers pressed into a pyramid shape. I’m here for it. So the criticisms I have about Portland Playhouse’s season opener Wakey Wakey have nothing to do with the play’s somber subject matter, which feels appropriate for Fall and this ghostly time of pre-Halloween. The main complaint I have with this intimate, one-sided conversation play about death and life is that I just recently saw an exceptional production about death (Andrew Schneider’s After), which also addressed a person's last few moments of existence. Wakey Wakey suffered by the unavoidable comparison.
Wakey Wakey is an new play. It debuted at New York’s Signature Theater last year to great acclaim. That performance was directed by the play’s writer—Signature resident Will Eno—and starred Michael Emerson (Ben from Lost) in the central role of Guy, an elderly man who, in the moments following his death, muses and cracks jokes about the idiosyncratic joys of human existence. If you’re familiar with Lost, you may remember that Emerson was cast for a brief role in Season 2, but his character acting so impressed the show’s creators that they recast him as the main antagonist and wrote a whole new character for him. He's an acting heavyweight. Considering that, in conjunction with the Playhouse’s performance of Wakey Wakey, I'm now questioning whether there was ever anything to Eno’s short play about death other than Emerson’s ability to make mediocre dialogue carry skin-crawling thrills.
There was nothing lacking to the Playhouse’s Guy, played by Michael O’Connell. O’Connell was extremely likable as a host to his own uneventful wake. At times he reminded me of The Simpsons' Troy McClure. He lost his train of thought. He led us through some slides and marveled at the wonders of audio visual technology. Though Wakey Wakey contains two roles (an unexplained nurse, companion, or angel of death named Lisa is played by Nikki Weaver), it is, at its heart, a one-man-show and O’Connell carried the story valiantly. He may have carried it a bit quickly. Though the Playhouse said we were in for 100-minute performance, we instead did it in 80. This was, no doubt, a relief to the man sitting next to me who ten minutes into the play began trying to find comfortable ways to sleep in his seat.
I'll admit there’s something to Wakey Wakey: a thrill of life, a burst of joy, a celebration of the good with the bad, but the whole thing is too homogenized for my tastes. As a play,Wakey Wakey was hailed for its everyman concerns, but I think that praise misses the mark. The argument that Guy is an everyman seems grounded in the idea that, since he never exposes specifics about his life, his moments before dying are universal and relatable to everyone. But a script lacking characterization is just kind of dull. I had more in common with the woman dying of hypothermia on a mountaintop in After because she remembered her friends, lovers, and passions. Sometimes a very specific character pulls at our heart and could be any one of us, but sometimes critics optimistically attach the everyman label to a mere voided vessel where no characterization can be found and if Michael Emerson isn't there to fill out the emptiness you don't have much to watch.