There will certainly be a group of audience members who will attend American Conservatory Theater’s production of “Wakey, Wakey” and heap it with praise. The production is loaded with quirky charm, a dashing performance from its star that showcases a delectable range of emotion while throwing non sequiturs around like fastballs, and some piercing insight into the worlds of life and death.
And without a doubt there will be others who watch the proceedings unfold and wonder what exactly was it that we just witnessed, and not in the good way.
Sadly, consider me part of the latter.
Playwright Will Eno dives into some dark regions in his piece, a play that seems to be inspired by absurdist theatre questions about what our lives mean and why we occupy this mortal coil. Much of this work is done via the medium of multimedia and a long, stream of consciousness monologue that is often filled with charm, humor and some laughs, executed warmly from television star Tony Hale who plays the character of “Guy.”
His co-star is a remote control that allows him to share with the audience some of his favorite highlights and videos. There is a lovely one that features animals screaming their asses off, a fun trivia word scramble which shows one of the answers unscrambling itself to reveal “Answer” and a picture of an illusion that moves ever so slightly if you tilt your head.
These are all delightful touches in the piece that are shaped by director Anne Kauffman, with the good-humored remote even having a few surprises of its own. The big screen is always filled with an image, often with a red curtain, and in pops random videos of a time gone by and of the moment we now live.
As someone who is of the generation of the Super 8 home movie, where a white wall or a sheet would project soundless movies while families provided the soundtrack in real time, these videos function in a nostalgic, life flashing before your eyes vibe. Other videos are more modernized, playing like simple and subtle reminders of the best that life has to offer.
The latter videos are a nice reminder for those of us who call the Bay Area home – it’s a region we fiercely love and often fight to protect. We love diversity, great weather, cultural opportunities, a county park with open space and living out loud Pride Parades. These are things that fulfill and enrich our existence, making us the envy of many and a lightning rod for many more.
The ideas of unbridled joy and extraordinary living are expressed in the play, but in ways that become very labored. While we watch this delightful, quick-thinking man ramble on as he heads toward his ultimate end, it’s not hard to disengage from whatever purpose the play works to give.
While Hale has some incredible moments of empathy that he creates by just being a fascinating talent as his character begins his untimely descent, by the time we reach the resolution, the build up of emotion and the eventual denouement falls flat.
It was William Shakespeare’s Hamlet who called death “The undiscovere’d country, from whose bourn no traveller returns.” These moments that Guy brings forth as he approaches a definite end expresses the ideas of Hamlet. There is an uncertainty that grips every movement, every breath, every thought. And ultimately, no matter how much time we’ve had, we yearn for more.
While the ideas of Eno are meant to compel, the character ultimately creates too much of a distance from our minds. His grappling of these concepts doesn’t do a great deal to grip anyone other than himself and a medical professional that is there when no one else is. It might be compared to a stand-up comedian who just kinda stares at the audience wondering what kind of ride should they take them on next. But the audience moves on.
Ultimately, no matter how happy bubbles and balloons makes us, it’s just not enough to save the life of Guy or the life of the play.
WHAT TO KNOW IF YOU GO
American Conservatory Theater San Francisco presents “Wakey, Wakey”
Written by Will Eno
Starring Tony Hale (Veep, Arrested Development)
The Word: A solid, comically timed performance from Tony Hale that unfortunately doesn’t go very far. The plays ideas are solid, but don’t do enough to fully compel.
Stars: 2 out of 5
Running time: 90 minutes, no intermission, which includes a 15-minute play at the onset
Through Feb. 16th
The Geary Theater
415 Geary St., San Francisco, CA
Tickets range from $15 – $110
For tickets, call (415) 749-2228 or visit www.act-sf.org