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Wakey Wakey
Photograph: Joan Marcus

Theater review: In Wakey, Wakey Will Eno finds the quirky side of dying

By David Cote
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★★★★☆

James Houghton, beloved and visionary founder of Signature Theatre Company, died last August after a battle with cancer. I don’t know how far in advance the Signature programs its seasons, but I’d guess the current shows were not planned by Houghton’s estimable successor, Paige Evans. Intentionally or not, there’s a lot of death in the building: Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’s Everybody updates a late-medieval allegory of dying; and now writer-director Will Eno (The Realistic Joneses) unveils a quietly beautiful 75-minute piece in which a man (Michael Emerson) walks us through a presentation, the ultimate point of which is: Enjoy the ride while you can.

Eno, who has noted that Houghton’s illness affected the writing of Wakey, Wakey, knows that there are only so many ways of saying, “You will die; celebrate life,” so he makes a spectacle of vamping and false starts, awkward yet deeply felt pauses, as the keen, funny, transfixing Emerson reads from index cards, gets his slides confused and bathes the audience in his gentle, beatific fussiness.

January LaVoy, ever radiant with a touch of mystery, arrives late as a caregiver, and here Emerson shifts into an elderly man actually facing his final minutes. You know how great actors have the ability to age decades right before your eyes? That happens here, and it's a pure astonishment.

In case you hadn’t already clocked the title as a pun, it is. Although Emerson wears pajama bottoms throughout and dozes briefly, you cannot be roused from the ultimate sleep like a napping toddler. As the Irish do, we can only gather around the body and fumble for something to say.

Pershing Square Signature Center (Off Broadway). Written and directed by Will Eno. With Michael Emerson, January LaVoy. Running time: 1hr 15mins. No intermission. Through Mar 26. Click here for full ticket and venue information.

Follow David Cote on Twitter: @davidcote       

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