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Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay

Wakey, Wakey
American Conservatory Theater
Review by Patrick Thomas | Season Schedule

Also see Patrick's review of You'll Catch Flies

Tony Hale
Photo by Kevin Berne
There is a poem by Mary Oliver, "The Summer Day," the last two lines of which a friend of mine (who experienced the horrific tragedy of losing a child) quotes regularly as a reminder to those of us who have not experienced such tremendous loss that our futures still stretch out before us: "Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?"

In Wakey, Wakey which opened Wednesday night at American Conservatory Theater's Geary Theater, playwright Will Eno (he of The Realistic Joneses, Middletown, The Open House, and others) addresses this question in a startling, at times confusing, but ultimately very human way. The play stars Tony Hale, best known for his roles in HBO's "Veep" and the Fox/Netflix series "Arrested Development," and he brings his signature quirkiness to the role of a man on the cusp of leaving his one wild and precious life behind and wondering if it was altogether as wild and precious as it ought to have been—and in so doing, reminds us to embrace ours with gusto and joy.

Do not, however, expect this inspiring message to come at you with anything like a narrative arc, or recognizable characters, or even Pinteresque subtext that reveals the true emotions hidden behind a façade of civility or social expectations. Eno's work has been described as "stand-up existentialism." For me, however, what makes his plays so wildly enjoyable is that, even with Eno's off-kilter, even outré, approach to theatre, he presents peculiarities in such an ordinary way that they become simultaneously hilarious and touching.

And so it is here. At the top of the show (which is preceded by another short play of Eno's, The Substitution, which serves as a sort of theatrical amuse-bouche), Tony Hale's character, Guy, is lying on the floor, half-dressed. He lifts his head, turns it to the audience and asks: "Is it now? I thought I had more time." We are then plunged back into darkness, and when lights come back up, Guy is sitting in a wheelchair wearing slippers, pajama bottoms, and a sport coat and dress shirt. He is alone on stage and addresses us directly, if reticently: "I don't know exactly what to say now," but goes on to say he finds it odd that in a work that is scripted, directed and rehearsed, one would think to say they don't know what to say. This is one of a number of jokes that break the fourth wall and keep us in the audience aware of our presence as participant observers. (Though as he reminds us, "Nothing is being asked of you here. Legally.")

Guy is on a journey of sorts. Into death? Eno seems to indicate this, with Guy's occasional fits of coughing, and Guy's presence in a wheelchair. Along the way, though, he (and Eno, of course, plus director Anne Kaufmann) take the time to reach out to we in the dark with the lessons he feels he needs to pass on before passing on, reminding us to "Push yourself. A little. And go easy on yourself. A little." He uses visual aids—slides, video clips—that appear on a big screen upstage, to drive home his lessons about joy and angst and frustration and love. (He is joined near the end of his pseudo-lecture by Kathryn Smith-McGlynn as Lisa, who is there "to help.") Guy seems to be saying that life is incredibly full of opportunities for outcomes both good and bad, and that what we experience is entirely up to us. "What do you want to feel?" he asks at one point. Because, as Guy says, the good and the bad, "It's all coming." After all, he adds, "we probably take almost everything for granted," and Guy doesn't want that to happen to us.

In fact, Guy wants us to have an incredibly full wild and precious life, to embrace all the beauty that surrounds us, infuses us even, and he is desperate for us to understand that, to shake us awake to it all. In the finale, when it's time finally for Guy to go, he leaves us with a celebration of simple joys that engulfed me in a childlike rush of joy and elicited a smile as wide as the Geary's proscenium.

If you can leave behind any cynicism you may have, as well as any dramatic expectations you might generally bring to the theatre, Wakey, Wakey will transport you to a world where the oddness of modern life is transformed into its simplest joys. This is heart medicine with no side effects.

Wakey, Wakey runs through February 16, 2020, at American Conservatory Theater's Geary Theater, 415 Geary Street, San Francisco CA. Performances are Tuesdays-Thursdays at 7:30 p.m., Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 p.m., and Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays at 2:00 p.m. Tickets range from $15-$110. For tickets and information, please visit