Will Eno play at A.C.T. deconstructs life — with humor

[Woody’s Rating: ★★★★☆

Guy (Tony Hale) and Lisa (Kathryn Smith-McGlynn) discuss life’s intricacies in “Wakey, Wakey.” Photo by Kevin Berne.

I’ve long believed that my immortality will come in the form of memories — my family’s, my friends, my co-workers.

Playwright Will Eno seems to have validated that thought.

At least that’s what I believe after seeing “Wakey, Wakey,” his comedy-drama at San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theater.

I learned quickly that his 75-minute, intermission-less play isn’t linear.

Unless I’m willing to believe that his zig-zagging, cerebral thought-balloonsthat gush like effervescent streams of consciousness — or subconsciousness — can be considered linear.

Where I can draw a direct line in “Wakey, Wakey” is between birth and death as Eno draws a wordy portrait of Guy, a terminally ill everyman in a wheelchair mulling his life and mortality via a series of existential questions and pauses.

In effect, Guy delivers his own eulogy at a celebration-of-life/wake that’s yet to occur.

And his words become a Rorschach test for me and every other audience member ready to examine the baggage we brought to the theater.

“Wakey, Wakey” is primarily a provocative, sometimes unfathomable monologue delivered in tour-de-force fashion by two-time Emmy winner Tony Hale (of “Veep” and “Arrested Development” fame).

It focuses on time.

Consider this crucial tidbit: “Time is your friend and time is your enemy.”

Consider, too, that the play starts with this relevant question and statement: “Is it now? I thought I had more time.”

Eno’s deconstruction of life is adroitly directed by Anne Kauffman, who, while noting in an interview in the program that “Will’s plays are like free association” and that the playwright’s style “is no frills, no flashy things,” envisions “Wakey, Wakey” not as a play but “a conversation with the audience.”

Which she proves to be a reasonable hypothesis.

That conversation touches on — among a multitude of other things — joy, peace, light, animals, fortune cookies, ball-playing, marching bands, acceptance and ice cream.

Bearing in mind that it’s foundation is death, it’s incredibly upbeat.

And it spotlights non sequitur one-liners sure to garner chuckles when not furrowing brows. Such as, “You’ll probably produce two swimming pools of saliva in your life. Use it wisely.”

In the final analysis, the play’s virtually impossible to categorize, certainly not in the usual theatrical terms — and, despite its preponderance of humor, contradictions and unexpected projections, not for those who can’t deal with the notion of death.

A substitute teacher, Ms. Forester (Kathryn Smith-McGlynn, center), does an odd experiment with her students — (from left) Jimmy (Jeff Wittekiend), Bobby (LeRoy S. Graham III), Marisol (Emma Van Lare) and Jennifer (Dinah Berkeley) — in “The Substitution,” a companion playlet to “Wakey, Wakey.” Photo by Kevin Berne

Eno, an Obie Award winner and Pulitzer Prize finalist who also wrote “Middletown” and “The Realistic Joneses,” has also penned a short, never-before-seen companion piece commissioned by A.C.T., “The Substitution,” specifically for these performances.

Like the main go, the roughly 12-minute tangential prelude features Kathryn Smith-McGlynn. It is backed by four students from A.C.T.’s MFA program.

It, like “Wakey, Wakey,” relies heavily on humor (despite, unfortunately, being now and then inaudible).

And it, too, spotlights pithy if sometimes unclear commentaries: “Pretend this is a test…Pretend this is a celebration…Pretend none of this is pretend.”

Walking out of the A.C.T. Theater onto Geary Street, I overheard a balding man plead to a companion, “Please tell me what that was all about,” at the very instant a woman several feet behind him was proclaiming, “That was one of the most fascinating shows I’ve seen in ages.”

I guess you had to be there.

“Wakey, Wakey” plays at the American Conservatory Theater, 415 Geary St., San Francisco, through Feb.16. Night performances 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Thursdays, 8 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays; matinees 2 p.m. Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays. Tickets: $22 to $120. Information: (415) 749-2228 or www.act-sf.org.

Contact Woody Weingarten, a member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle, at www.vitalitypress.com/ or voodee@sbcglobal.net.

About the Author

Woody WeingartenWoody Weingarten, who can be reached at www.vitalitypress.com/ or voodee@sbcglobal.net, can’t remember when he couldn’t talk — or play with words. His first poem was published in high school but when his hormones announced the arrival of adulthood, he figured he’d rather eat than rhyme. So he switched to journalism. And whadda ya know, the bearded, bespectacled fella has used big, small and hyphenated words professionally since jumpstarting his career in New Yawk City more than 60 years ago. Today the author of the book “Rollercoaster: How a man can survive his partner’s breast cancer” is also a reviewer-critic, blogger and publisher — despite allegedly being retired. During his better-paid years as a wage slave he was an executive editor and writer for daily and weekly publications in California, Florida, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and New York. He won writing awards for public service and investigation, features, columns, editorials and news. Woody also has published weekly and monthly newspapers, and written a national column for “Audio” magazine. A graduate of Colgate University, he owned a public relations/ad agency and managed an advertising publication. The father of two and grandfather of three, he and his wife, Nancy Fox, have lived in San Anselmo in Marin County for three decades. He figures they'll stay.View all posts by Woody Weingarten →