Early on in Wakey Wakey, Guy (Michael Emerson) tells us, “however you think of it right now is probably how you’ll think of it when it’s over.” He’s probably right. For the most part, Wakey Wakey is a discursive existential monologue addressed directly to the audience. It is a multimedia presentation with a calculated feeling of disorder. Guy often seems uncertain about the direction of the piece and relies on sudden whims and cue cards to keep his side of things going. He is stymied by a bevy of technical difficulties and occasional physical limitations. If it’s not your thing in the beginning, it’s unlikely to win you over. I, for one, thought it was great.
Guy’s approach is warm and mischievous but he’s unable to conceal the symptoms of illness. His hands tremble, his voice gives out, his emotions overcome him. He’s afraid of falling asleep. Guy is dying. But the details of his own personal tragedy are eschewed in favor of meditations on life’s wondrous possibilities and its inevitable conclusion. He offers random musings, conducts visualization exercises, cracks plenty of jokes and provides helpful statistics about the amount of saliva your body produces in a lifetime. The most painful part of his imminent demise is his selflessness. Guy is primarily concerned about us. Do we understand the gift conscious life has given us? Will we take care of each other? Will be okay without him? The third act offers a smart reprieve from Guy’s unchaperoned company and opens us up to the possibility that Guy doesn’t have to die or look after us on his own.
Theater at its greatest can be a transformational experience for the audience. It can cause us to feel so deeply or think so clearly that it forces us to reevaluate our own lives. Wakey Wakey’s plea for that experience is more direct than most (though a similar approach is taken in Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ Everybody, also currently playing at the Signature Theatre). As a result, the metaphors for life’s end are piled a little high even at a trim 75 minutes. Nevertheless, the eventual introduction of another perspective saves Will Eno’s latest work from becoming an exercise in lightly comedic masochism and the play’s conclusion erupts into a sincere joyousness that any playwright trying to directly affect an audience should envy.