‘The Sunset Limited’ review

Theatre, Drama
3 out of 5 stars
The Sunset Limited, Boulevard Theatre, 2020
Photograph: Marc Brenner

Time Out says

3 out of 5 stars

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Cormac McCarthy’s dense, bleak drama packs a punch

Two men sit, eyeing each other warily, in a rundown New York apartment owned by Black (Gary Beadle), who has just prevented White (Jasper Britton) from ending his life by jumping in front of a subway train. Now, he wants to convince him not to try again, and he doesn’t want to let him leave until he has. But will his Christianity prevail over White’s fatalism?

‘Sunset Limited’ (2007) is just one of two plays by author Cormac McCarthy, whose novels have been adapted into acclaimed films like ‘No Country for Old Men’ and ‘The Road’. It shares those works’ chilly outlook on human nature and the bleakness always at our door. It might look like a conversation between two people, but it’s a philosophical debate about what, if anything, has meaning. It’s a deeply chewy piece of writing that requires careful digestion.

Narrowing the focus to just two people makes this a good choice of second production – a UK premiere – for the new Boulevard Theatre’s beautiful-but-snug auditorium. The audience’s nearness to the stage adds a much-needed intimacy to Black and White’s doctrinal clash. It also helps the dry, bitter shards of humour that puncture the play to generate some welcome laughs.

If this still sounds like tough going, you’re not entirely wrong. While’s there an underlying wryness, McCarthy holds up Black and White’s opposing viewpoints to powerful scrutiny, throwing the existential ball between them. Black’s dedication to ‘saving’ White’s life is simply an instruction from a god he knows exists; White’s reluctance to agree is the complete opposite.

It’s a bit of a weary trope to make the religious character an African-American ex-convict and the non-believer a white university professor. But McCarthy plays pretty deftly with the power dynamics of the situation. Beadle gives a strong performance as Black – quick and sharp, with a compelling kernel of inscrutability and a healthy bullshit detector. He cultivates a prickly, edgy chemistry with Britton’s desolately determined White.

At times, McCarthy’s script feels overly enthralled to the dense, words-filled pages of his usual form, the novel, where the author is fully in charge. Here, the drama is in the ideas, not the theatrical experience. Black and White’s argument tends to circle points rather than forge forward. We get snippets of their lives, but as fuel to their debate. In the middle of the 90-minute runtime, the show feels a little as though it’s running on the spot.

But if ‘Sunset Limited’ feels better suited to the page than to the stage, it packs a shocking punch in its closing moments. McCarthy never mocks Black’s beliefs, but this is no ‘come to Jesus’ finale. Director Terry Johnson’s subtle game of existential musical chairs culminates in White taking Black’s seat and finally unleashing the full force of his worldview. It’s comprehensively bleak and final, leaving a bewildered Black alone with his deafeningly silent god.

By: Tom Wicker

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