Off Broadway Review: ‘Wakey Wakey’ Starring Michael Emerson

Signature Theater stages are currently filled with two quite different end-of-life accountings. In one theater there’s Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ expansive, lively and cautionary parable play “Everybody.” But in another, Will Eno takes a more intimate, meditative and open-hearted approach with “Wakey, Wakey,” a work of humor, humanity and grace that makes you want to hug your lover, your neighbor and maybe an usher on the way out. It also offers a captivating, playful and deeply moving performance by Michael Emerson (“Person of Interest,” “Lost”) as a man in his last hour of life presiding over his premature wake, offering perspective, comfort and, in the end, joy and light.

The recent death of Signature’s artistic director James Houghton gently hovers over the piece, but it is not necessary to know that or him to connect with this contemplative production. “It’s important to honor the people whose shoulders we stood upon and fell asleep against,” says Guy (Emerson) as he comes to terms with his life and impending demise. “Nothing is being asked of you here,” he adds, putting the audience at ease in what is clearly a tip-toe situation, one that wavers between the trivial and the profound like the best of conversations among longtime friends.

Guy is first seen in a flash of light on the floor asking, “Is it now? I thought I had more time.” For the rest of this two-hander directed by Eno, Guy is seated in a wheelchair, weak but purposeful, addressing the audience for this “eulogy for the eulogist.” But, as Guy points out after one of his many timely observations, “We’re not here to mope, right?”

Indeed. There’s music, slides, kiddie snapshots, memory games, word puzzles, fun facts, video clips of funny animals and plenty of wry asides — not to mention Eno’s idiosyncratic sensibility — to keep the first half of the piece beguilingly quirky. But there’s also no doubt that “we’re here to say goodbye, of course.”

David Lander’s lighting and Christine Jones’ design clue us to the inevitable changing realities: a suggestion of a tasteful institutional setting, packing boxes and piles of clothing indicating material things that aren’t that important any longer, and a door just off to the side waiting to be opened.

There’s much to say and too little time. “Time is your friend and time is your enemy,” says Guy as he fumbles with his index cards to cue his memory.  There are words of wisdom to impart (“Push yourself a little and go easy on yourself a little”), philosophical questions to ponder (“Where does enjoyment go?”) and a wake-up call or two (“Take care of each other”).

But as Guy physically weakens and his alertness fades, the mood gets drifty. The arrival of a caregiver, Lisa (a luminous January LaVoy), signals that the end is near. Tiny rituals take place; there’s an unexpected peek into Guy’s background; kindness leads to catharsis — and acceptance.

Throughout the play, Eno breaks the fourth wall but here he also suggests a wondrous fifth: a world beyond the memories of the past and the realities of the present and towards the inevitable adjustment nature demands. It’s a loving transition, theatrically told in a sui generis style that is Eno’s own. As Guy would say, “Wowee.”

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