Story: Two men, both identified by their skin color, sit in a dreary little room by a railroad station. The character referred to as White is nattily if somewhat frumpily attired, while the character called Black wears paint-splattered work clothes. The latter has brought the former to his room after rescuing White from a suicide attempt at a railroad station in New York City for The Sunset Limited, a train that travels regularly between Gotham and Los Angeles.
White is a professor of literature whose friends mainly consist of ideas he’s gleaned from the many books he’s read in his lifetime. When grilled by Black, he admits to a solitary friend with whom he occasionally has lunch. An avowed atheist, White sees no point in continuing his lonely and unsatisfying existence, an opinion that contrasts dramatically with Black’s evangelical Christian belief in God and the hereafter.
Black, an ex-convict and born-again Christian, earnestly attempts to get to the source of White’s misery and convince him of life’s value, referring often to messages he’s taken to heart from the Bible and emanating from his hellish background. White, however, counters every argument with his own fatalistic observations and overwhelming desire to kill himself as a final act of independence. Whose will is stronger?
Highlights: Referred to by its author, Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Cormac McCarthy, as a “novel in dramatic form,” this one-act, 90-minute drama oddly places its title entity in New York City rather than New Orleans, the actual origination point since 1894 for a passenger train traveling between New Orleans and Los Angeles. Perhaps The Big Easy isn’t dramatic enough for McCarthy?
Regardless, The Sunset Limited marks the debut of Theatre Lab, a new troupe in town whose mission is to “produce ambitious and passionate projects, without expectations, but always with a high level of quality and commitment.” In reference to that quest, this inaugural voyage is a satisfying excursion that showcases the considerable talents of two of the area’s finest actors, Zachary Allen Farmer and Robert Mitchell, and the auspicious local directorial debut of Theatre Lab founder and artistic director Ryan Foizey.
Other Info: The appellation of that passenger train serves obvious metaphorical benefits for McCarthy, exemplifying the pessimistic, nihilistic attitude of White. The titular train doesn’t, however, match the sluggish pace of McCarthy’s ultimately tedious dialogue, which needs considerably more energy and much-needed action to propel his story to its predictable conclusion.
While just 90 minutes long, the script probably could benefit from the paring of at least 15 minutes of repetitive dialogue between its characters, as it eventually becomes more like an enervating soccer game than a scintillating tennis match. McCarthy makes solid points for both of his characters, but after a while it all becomes monotonous and mind-numbing rather than intellectually challenging.
This doesn’t, however, negate the marvelous performances of Farmer and Mitchell, two savvy actors who work beautifully in concert. Mitchell smoothly exudes Black’s effervescence, wearing it as a cloak to protect him from the suffocating doubts that cascade down around him from a cynical world, irrepressibly striving to “rescue” his depressed guest (or hostage?). Farmer juxtaposes White’s flat-lining personality against Black’s volcano of human emotion, something director Foizey effectively accentuates to stylized effect.
That deadening existence epitomized by White lays the foundation for a pivotal eruption by Farmer that is all the more alarming for its unpredictability. It’s rewarding to see Farmer, primarily known for his witty efforts in many New Line Theatre musicals, flex his dramatic muscles with such persuasion.
Black’s language is crude, often vulgar and racially tinged, in contrast to White’s thoughtful, academic prose. That chasm in personalities underscores the divide between their theological poles as well. Foizey adds what dynamism he can to the story with some mini-confrontations and even the sharing of a meal between the two, but the static nature of McCarthy’s approach just wears thin too often.
Set designers Foizey and David Blake offer a gritty, squalid locale for Black’s apartment, represented by a lock-covered door, shabby furniture and a cramped kitchen, with Tyler Duenow’s lighting filtering in through dingy windows or from a bare light bulb hanging from the ceiling. Marcy Weigert dresses the players in the aforementioned garb that matches their circumstances.
You’ll recognize the relentlessly dark themes of death and violence that permeated the Coen Brothers’ Oscar-winning film version of McCarthy’s novel, No Country for Old Men, in this effort. It’s a noble undertaking for Theatre Lab’s initial offering for the notable performances of its two players. Ultimately, though, McCarthy is more of a droning preacher than the talkative Black could ever be.
Play: The Sunset Limited
Company: Theatre Lab
Venue: Gaslight Theater, 358 North Boyle
Dates: August 15, 16, 17
Rating: A 4 on a scale of 1-to-5.
Photos courtesy of John Lamb