Declined Intervention

29. October, 2010 Theater No comments


Show #105: The Sunset Limited, SF Playhouse, October 16.

Carl Lumbly and Charles Dean in The Sunset Limited. Photo by Jessica Palopoli.

By Sam Hurwitt

That author Cormac McCarthy has a dark streak a mile long shouldn’t be news to anyone who’s read his novels such as No Country for Old Men, The Road, or All the Pretty Horses — or more likely seen the movies based on them. Now SF Playhouse is winding up its West Coast premiere of one of McCarthy’s rare plays, The Sunset Limited.

First produced by Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre Company in 2006, the play is one intense 100-minute conversation between two characters, with no intermission and no scene breaks. A play like that rests entirely on two powerful performances, and fortunately artistic director Bill English has a knockout cast in Carl Lumbly and Charles Dean. Although best known today for his TV roles on Alias and Cagney & Lacey, Lumbly is a veteran of SF’s late Eureka Theatre Company in the 1970s, and Dean is a local theater treasure from his many years at Berkeley Rep and the Magic, and the two of them are terrific together.

Director English’s set nicely captures the kitchen of a dingy little apartment, its walls all open slats, and the play opens with the blaring horns of Tom Waits’s “Midtown” vying with the loud sound of a subway train passing. In fact the two characters have just returned from the subway, where one of them, a black ex-con, stopped the other, a white professor, from jumping in front of the train of the play’s title. In the script and the program, the two nameless characters are just called Black and White, though they don’t use those names in dialogue. Black calls White “professor” and occasionally “honey” in a country sort of way, and White doesn’t call Black anything.

They’re both sitting in Black’s nearly bare apartment, with no possessions to speak of because the junkies in the building would just steal anything he had anyway. A self-appointed missionary, Black found Jesus in prison and now makes it his business to take care of people, whether they like it or not. And White doesn’t like it — it’s clear that he doesn’t want to be there are all, in Black’s apartment or on earth, for that matter, but for some reason he also doesn’t leave.

The play is a sort of cat-and-mouse game between the two of them, in which Black is clearly the cat, but he never tries to hide the fact that he’s playing for time, trying to get White to stay and convince him to want to live. He says it outright a few times, especially whenever it looks like White’s going to try to leave. “You think I’m fixin’ to put you in the trick bag,” he says. “I am. I just don’t want you to know about it.” Black isn’t forcing White to stay, but he makes it clear that he’ll follow White wherever he goes to make sure he doesn’t try something again.

There’s a lot of wry humor, most of it on Black’s part and a lot of it about language. When White makes up a hypothetical person to illustrate a point and Black asks why he’s picking on this imaginary guy who can’t defend himself. When White says he has to go, Black slyly points out that he knows White doesn’t have anything he needs to be doing because he wasn’t even planning to be around anymore.

But there’s no getting past the fact that it’s one long debate, and didactic almost by definition. McCarthy doesn’t call it a play but “a novel in dramatic form,” but at times it’s more akin to a Platonic dialogue, only one in which no one becomes persuaded of anything. It feels like a marathon and the endless banter and debate does get tedious after a while, particularly when it gets to White’s misanthropic rant.

Lumbly was last seen onstage in SF Playhouse’s 2007 production of Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train, in which he also played a convicted murderer turned self-appointed evangelist, but while there was always something scary and imposing about Lucius in the earlier play, Black exudes openness and friendly concern. He’s bright and engaged, relishing clever turns of phrase although he’s very insistent about having no book-learning beyond the one book. If something’s not in the Bible, he says, odds are he doesn’t know it. Dean is an affable but world-weary White, an unrepentant suicide who’s clearly enjoying the banter to a point but is mostly simply enduring this encounter the way he endures everything else in his life, which is to say not very well because he’s sick of all of it.

White professes to have no beliefs, but of course that’s not true.  Clearly he’s bought into the idea that life is supposed to have some kind of capital-P Purpose, enough to become bitter and nihilistic when he comes to the conclusion that there’s no grand plan. It’s a portrait of a very specific kind of atheist that’s still very rooted and invested in the Judeo-Christian tradition.

White’s suicidal tendencies are no more a logical extension of his atheism than a Christian’s suicide might be a logical extension of his or her Christianity. White craves oblivion and nothingness the same way someone else might crave tea parties with Jesus in Heaven. The important thing in either case is the complete rejection of life, whatever you imagine the alternative or aftermath to be.

Whether or not you agree with any of Black’s religious point of view, the play feels weighted very strongly in his favor because White is so clearly in error. Both their perspectives may be balderdash, but Black’s is clearly working for him and making him a better person, while White’s has clearly failed him and alienated him from everybody around him. The closest thing White has to a friend is a guy he has lunch with sometimes at school, so Black calls that guy White’s “best friend” by default. But of course simply by virtue of having this conversation at all, Black is actually White’s best friend, even though they’ve never met and are unlikely to meet again.

Although very clever along the way, it’s ultimately a brutal, exhausting play that seems longer than it is, just because it’s so unrelenting. The stakes are higher for Black than they are for the viewer who may not have his investment either in Jesus or in whether White ever snaps out of it. As is probably the case in any intervention, after a while everyone’s tired of all the talking, the intervener, the intervenee and the audience alike. But even if we eventually weary of the push-and-pull between Black and White, the give-and-take between two powerhouse actors like Lumbly and Dean.

The Sunset Limited
Through November 6
SF Playhouse
533 Sutter St.
San Francisco, CA

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