Life, death and more fill Will Eno’s Wakey, Wakey at ACT

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Guy (Tony Hale) asks the audience to follow him in an exercise of imagination in Will Eno’s Wakey, Wakey performing at ACT’s Geary Theater. Below: Lisa (Kathryn Smith-McGlynn) stretches as Guy rests. Photos by Kevin Berne

When you write about theater, you tend to take notes while watching the show whenever a line or a moment triggers the part of your brain that says, “Oh, I’d like to mention that later.” During Will Eno’s Wakey, Wakey now at American Conservatory Theater’s Geary Theater, the first half had me writing so fast and furiously I finally just had to stop writing entirely and simply absorb the show.

This isn’t surprising in that Eno is one of the most interesting playwrights in the theaterverse. He’s weird and brilliant, funny and deeply humane. Because there can be an oblique and highly theatrical quality to his work, he has often been compared to Beckett, but for me, I feel more Thornton Wilder (somewhere between The Skin of Our Teeth and Our Town). He wrestles in creative and insightful and surprising ways with what it is to be alive and how we’re all connected by the knowledge that none of us is getting out of here alive and that we could all probably be doing better when it comes to being aware of our lives as we’re living them.

Wakey, Wakey,, like other Eno works, defies easy description. There are people and things happen, but where they are and what exactly they’re doing isn’t clear. And it doesn’t need to be. We’re all here and this is happening. Director Anne Kauffman eases us into this world, helps us relax and just take the play as it comes without expectations that this is going to follow the rules and rhythms of plays we’ve experienced before.

The play begins with a prologue of sorts, The Substitution, about a community college driver’s ed class where the substitute teacher (Kathryn Smith-McGlynn) shakes things up by not behaving the way the students expect her to and ends up giving them something far more interesting (if inscrutable) than the rules of the road.

Then the play begins in earnest with the appearance of Guy (Tony Hale), about whom we know nothing except that our first encounter with him finds him face down on the floor minus his pants. Seconds later, his pants are on, he’s sitting in a wheelchair and he’s talking directly to us.

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Apparently we’re all here for some sort of presentation (well, yes, isn’t that what a play is?). Guy is offering, with the help of some notecards, a semi-inspirational TED-ish talk about the nature of time and about how this is not really how it was supposed to be. The setting (by designer Kimie Nishikawa) is a nondescript auditorium or multipurpose room in some sort of civic or educational institution or perhaps a place where people live together or are receiving treatment. Again, details are sketchy and it doesn’t really matter (although I have theories, and I’m certain they’re all 100% accurate).

What Guy does (or did) before being in this room with us is not known. If he has connections to other people (spouse, child, friends), that also remains a mystery. He’s going to engage us as best he can and share a little of what he knows about life but with lots of distractions and asides. Hale’s basic likability is essential here. We know and love the actor from his incredible work making misfits lovable on “Arrested Development” (Buster) and “VEEP” (Gary) and most recently as the voice of Forky in Toy Story 4 (talk about an existential crisis). None of the quirks we might recognize from other characters inform Guy, who is clearly a kind person if somewhat frustrated by his current situation. So even though we don’t know much about Guy, we like him and connect with him and want him to succeed in this endeavor, even as it seems to grow increasingly difficult for him.

There is another character, possibly someone we met in the prologue (or someone else entirely), and that character helps clarify (a little) what we’re actually witnessing.

Wakey, Wakey feels like more of an experience than a play, one that lingers as a feeling (or an avalanche of feelings) rather than as conundrum we have to pick apart and solve. There’s a lot about death here – does the title refer to a gentle way of rousing a sleeping child or is it a play on the gathering we have after a funeral? – and as a result, it’s positively hopeful and life affirming. This rich experience – barely 90 minutes – is also funny, moving and inspiring. There are so many things we can do with the limited time we’re given. Absorbing Wakey, Wakey would be a good use of that time.

Will Eno’s Wakey, Wakey continues through Feb. 16 at American Conservatory Theater’s Geary Theater, 415 Geary St., San Francisco. Tickets are $15-$110. Call 415-749-2228 or visit

Jonesing for cosmic connection in ACT’s Joneses

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The cast of American Conservatory Theater’s The Realistic Joneses includes, from left, James Wagner as John Jones, Allison Jean White as Pony, Rebecca Watson as Jennifer Jones and Rod Gnapp as Bob Jones. Below: Watson’s Jen and Gnapp’s Bob hang out in the backyard in Will Eno’s comic drama. Photos by Kevin Berne

The topic is: things that have happened. That broad, yet somehow quite specific, statement comes from a character in Will Eno’s The Realistic Joneses now on stage at American Conservatory Theater’s Geary Theater. Another broad yet specific topic might be: lives that are lived.

Eno is one of those playwrights whose gift seems to be making raising the bizarre, often absurd experience of human existence to the level of cosmic grace and beauty. How he does that exactly is a bit of a mystery, as it should be, but it’s on fully display in Joneses even more than it was in several of his remarkable earlier plays such as Tragedy: A Tragedy and Middletown. Eno has a dash of Samuell Beckett, more than a pinch of Thornton Wilder and a heaping helping of any smart stand-up comedian you’d care to name.

With The Joneses, Eno takes two couples, both with the last name Jones (my grandfather once told me everyone was born Jones but only the good ones stay that way) and lets them reflect on each other and affect one another. A quiet, four-person play would seem to be out of place on the massive Geary stage, but that is not the case. As director Loretta Greco is well aware, Eno is micro and macro. There’s an epic quality to his intimacy, and that’s reflected in Greco’s beautiful production, which features a set by Andrew Boyce that offers the backyards of two homes in suburban American (somewhere near the mountains and sea, we’re told). There’s a massive tree canopy that allows some visibility of the stars, and that’s important. As I said before, this play opens up in its curious way, to the cosmic. Size matters here, and the production makes the vastness count.

One quiet night, interrupted only by the rustling and chirping of night sound, Bob and Jennifer Jones (Rod Gnapp and Rebecca Watson) are outside at their picnic table. You could say they were talking, but that becomes a topic of discussion: are they talking, really talking? Or are they “throwing words at each other.” Just as they might be veering from throwing to talking, they are interrupted by new neighbors, Pony (Allison Jean White) and John (James Wagner), bearing greetings and a bottle of wine.

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From here, we discover interesting connections within this quartet as Eno shuffles them up – a grocery store meeting here, late-night backyard encounter there – and casts a shadow of mortality in the form of an illness one character calls “the Benny Goodman Experience.” There is nothing “normal” about this play, not its rhythms, not its character interactions, not its trajectory. And yet, as it proceeds through its one hour and 45 minutes, it gains a weight and a poignancy that is surprising, especially given how many good laughs it offers. The wonderful cast and Greco can take a lot of credit for that, but the real architect here is Eno.

The engine of the play is John, a man who is searching and struggling and suffering. The path his thoughts, and consequently his words, take give rise to much of the humor because he’s the king of the unfiltered non sequitor. He says of his wife, “What my lady wants, with some huge and basic exceptions, my lady gets.” Or when he asks Jennifer if she has any brothers, Jen answers that she has two half-sisters. “So that sort of equals a brother,” John says. He also points out later on that “even a hundred-year-old fake is an antique.”

Pony and John have their comically absurd moments as well. Pony, in a moment of frustration with her life, says, “I feel like I should go to med school or get my hair cut or something.” Or something. Then she muses on other tracks her life might have taken: “I probably would’ve overdosed on drugs, if I’d gotten into drugs and then taken too many.” Only Jennifer seems to be the fully anchored grownup in the group, the mother figure who is as lost and in search of something as the rest of them. She just functions in everyday life at a higher level than they do.

The Realistic Joneses is, in its subdued, humorous way, stunning, a deeply felt examination of what we do with this life and these brains and these souls. The ending, as surprising as everything else in the play, brought to mind the comedian Rita Rudner’s deep philosophical query: “Any questions? Any answers? Anyone care for a mint?”

Will Eno’s The Realistic Joneses continues thorugh March 12 at American Conservatory Theater’s Geary Theater, 415 Geary St., San Francisco. Tickets are $25-$105 (subject to change). Call 415-749-2228 or visit

Where there’s a Will…

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Playwright Will Eno. Photo below by Farzad Owrang.

Recently I had the pleasure of conducting an email interview with playwright Will Eno, whose Lady Grey (in ever lower light) and other plays closes this weekend at Cutting Ball Theater.

Read the interview in the San Francisco Chronicle here.

There was more interview than there was room in the newspaper, so please enjoy the rest of the brilliant Mr. Eno’s responses.

Q: Dogs tend to pop up in your work, or more specifically, the deaths of dogs. Does this mean you’re a dog lover or the opposite?

A: I am solidly and proudly a dog lover. I even sometimes think of this as an enlightened position, a paradoxically humane approach to the world. Other times, though, I worry that I love dogs because I love to imagine a world in which there are only about three total feelings and three total needs, and it never gets more complicated than that. “Yes, I want to go for a walk. Yes, I’m hungry. Yes, thank you, I would like to climb up on your leg. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go around in circles and then fall asleep until I wake up barking and run over to the door.” The great dogs in my life have made me feel like I’m a good and trustworthy person. They allow you to live on or near an essential level that is just fairly basic and stable needs, and once those are taken care of, it’s all cats and shiny hubcaps and tennis balls.

Q: Mr. Theatre nods in the direction of Shakespeare and the “Seven Ages of Man” speech from As You Like It. What in your canon do you think might inspire a nod from Mr. Shakespeare (given we could overcome his inconvenient death)?

A: The good thing about this is that we can’t overcome his death, convenient or not, and so the level of abstraction here is high enough that I won’t worry about seeming arrogant by even trying to answer. I could possibly imagine him hearing Thom Pain’s line to someone in the audience, “I have that same shirt,” and thinking, “Hey, that’s not a bad way to accomplish the thing that just got accomplished.” Another one might be a line in my play The Flu Season where, after one narrator has narrated a scenario in which a lot of terrible stuff is about to be reversed and erased by a change of setting, the change of setting does not occur, the terrible stuff continues, and the other narrator says, coldly and flatly, “Oops.”
Q: Do people ever think you’re Brian Eno and then get mad when your plays turn out not to be Music for Airports concerts?

A: It happens less and less that someone will ask if I’m related to Brian Eno, and I regard this as a bad sign for the culture at large. I just found out about a month ago, there is a small chance that we are, very distantly, related. I believe we both travel under a misspelled version of a French name, “Henault.” Mine was changed about five generations ago when some relatives who couldn’t spell came down from Canada. I don’t know what his story is. He’s someone I really admire. He has a kind of genius that expresses itself both at the very scientific level and, as well, at the level of the lullaby.

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Q: When Berkeley Rep produced your TRAGEDY: a tragedy in 2008 I recall audiences having extremes in their reactions, from thinking it was hilarious and brilliant to walking out mid-performance. How much does the audience’s experience with your work matter to you?

A: It means a lot, good or bad, when you’re sitting right there. But then time passes. That play, to me, is about death and anxiety and how we try to talk about unspeakable things. Also, around the time I was starting writing it, my mom was having terrible insomnia for the first time in her life, and I was feeling a lot of sympathy for how lonely and scary a night can be to some people. Those are the memorable things. As for my response to people’s responses, there’s not tons of nuance there – it hurts when people hate something, and feels good when they like it, but it’s good to remember you’re not owed either response. I loved that cast and loved working with Les Waters and Berkeley Rep and thought the production was really great. So I’m pretty sure that the people who hated it, hated what I wrote and how I wrote it, and not anything else, which is not exactly a good feeling, but at least a very clear one. It’s good to try to accept that thoughtful and intelligent and decent people might really hate what you do.
Q: If you could go to a show with any of the characters in these short plays – Lady Grey, Mr. Theatre, Mr. and Mrs. Smith or Jack and Jill – who would it be and why?

A: That’s an interesting question. I tend to resist giving that particular kind of reality to characters I’ve written, partly because I’m happy enough with the reality they achieve within a theatrical production and partly because it always seems weird to me when playwrights do that. But since you ask, it would probably be one of the women. Romulus Linney, who was a good good guy, and who just died over the winter, has a beautiful short play called F.M. I can’t think of the name of the main female character, but, she very much comes to mind as a fictional character I’d like to meet. I don’t know if we’d go to a play, though. Maybe we’d see some music or go to an aquarium.
Q: You’ve been compared to all kinds of people, from Samuel Beckett to Jon Stewart to Thornton Wilder. How would you describe what you do and how you do it to a non-theater-going person?

A: I try not to get too carried away with the comparisons, as I understand that we all need the convenience of a category, a point of reference. Think of how many incredibly different things are described by us saying, “It’s like riding a bike.” I don’t know why I thought of this, but, my cousin James said to me, about the character Thom Pain, after seeing the production in New York, “At first, I didn’t trust that guy. And then, I completely trusted that guy.” That always made me feel good. I would like to describe what I do by saying that I’m trying to create trust against terrible and even impossible odds, and then allow for something great and new to happen within that field of trust. That’s probably a little highfalutin or overreaching, but, hey, so shoot me, I’m highfalutin. Truly, I don’t think I’m up to anything too mysterious, or esoteric. I think it’s just something about trying to create or allow for the audience a certain sequence of feelings. I think the thing is to change the speed of life a little, speed it up or down, and put some felt and relevant words in the air, so that we can see it a little differently, and, my great hope would be, love it more, care for it more. Speaking of comparisons, here’s a good one. I was once visiting my great aunt in a nursing home. I’d just had my appendix out and weighed about 20 pounds less than I usually did, and she asked to see the scar. When I lifted my shirt and showed her, she said, “Look at you. You’re like Christ.” I didn’t know if she meant the scar, or, that I’d come to visit, or what. It turned out she thought I was too skinny. I like the idea of the word Christlike being used solely in reference to someone’s physique.

Lady Grey (in ever lower light) and other plays continues through April 10 at EXIT on Taylor, 277 Taylor St., San Francisco. Tickets are $15-$30. Call 800-838-3006 or visit for information.

Into the void with Will Eno; we do not move


Bathroom and beverage break: the cast of Will Eno’s Intermission includes (from left) David Sinaiko, Gwyneth Richards, Galen Murphy-Hoffman and Danielle O’Hare. Below: O’Hare as the title character in Lady Grey (in ever lower light). Photos by Rob Melrose

Will Eno builds some extraordinary bridges – between absurdist theater of the 1950s and now, between laughs that actually tickle and reality that is actually harsh, between ironic dismissal and deep, deep feeling.

I would happily lose myself in Eno’s world for days if possible – his combination of humor, desolation and intelligence come together in ways that make me incredibly happy. And incredibly sad. Thank whatever powers that be in the universe that Will Eno is writing for the theater and that he’s seemingly unaffected by anything remotely hipster or sappy or commercial.

Cutting Ball Theatre produced Eno’s Thom Pain (based on nothing) in 2009 to great acclaim. Happily, the Cutting Ball-Eno collaboration continues. Three theater-related one-acts are now running at the EXIT on Taylor, and they’re every bit as engaging, hilarious and tinged with genius as Thom Pain.

Lady Grey (in ever lower light) contains two monologues and one multi-character play. They all confront the notion of theater as a “recreational” means to emotion, a gingerly step (as a group) into the maw of the abyss known as reality. We’re all alone, yet we’re all in it together.

“Let me guess – an audience, right? Or, wait, no – friends of the deceased? Family of the victim? Whoever you are, you’re very convincing. White people in chairs? Cheer up. You’re all very beautiful, in a very general way.” Those words are spoken by Lady Grey, the star of the first (and title) play. She assesses us and we her. As played by Danielle O’Hare, she is sharp, melancholy and a little distracted.

“It doesn’t work, my life, without people sitting there, staring, undressing me with their eyes, then undressing themselves, brushing their teeth in their minds and falling asleep, wishing they were dead. So, honestly, thank you,” Lady Grey continues, breaking down the fourth wall and giving us a sort of context for her monologue. She acknowledges that we’re all experiencing a piece of theater and the proceeds to tell us about the pains of life – childhood illness, show-and-tell day in school, lost love and the fear of oncoming night.


She sings a little and she jokes a lot. There are things she says that are outright hilarious and should bring down the house, but O’Hare’s delivery (under the direction of Cutting Ball Artistic Director Rob Melrose) is so droll, so pained at times, that the laughs are tempered by lurking tragedy. It’s a powerful purgatory to inhabit – reveling in the artificiality of the theatrical experience yet savoring every real, prickly emotion that floats from stage.

“You could compare me to a summer’s day, though this really wouldn’t be necessary,” Lady Grey tells us. “I could be compared to a winter’s night, too, though by whom, and why? I’m like last Saturday. Cold, cloudy, over. I can’t be bothered.” She pauses the way a comedian should pause. Then she adds, “I can be bothered, I lied.”

The second piece, Intermission, is set just before and during intermission of a drama called The Mayor (the maudlin excerpt we hear is priceless). An older couple, David Sinaiko and Gwyneth Richards are sitting next to a younger couple, O’Hare and Galen Murphy-Hoffman. It’s an Albee-like set-up milked for all its worth, the age and experience of the older couple trumping the somewhat youthful ignorance of the younger, all the while satirizing serious drama (and the theater companies that underscore its very serious importance).

At one point the older man admonishes the younger: “But, son, do you have a mother? Do you love anything old? Have you ever lost anything, slowly? And if not, then, what experience are you hoping to see represented here? You are comparing this to what?” The artificiality of the theater suddenly seems quite small, especially in the shadow of a story the older man tells about losing his dog, Emily, after she was injured.

“She was like a member of the family,” the older woman adds.

“No, in fact, she was not like a member of the family,” her husband rejoins. “My father was like a member of the family. I’m like a member of the family. She was The Dog. Always there, never moody, living better and truer through life than any of us, by at least a factor of seven. She gave us many beautiful people years.”

In this funny little island of theatricality – the supposedly real space in between the fake parts – we get real drama, real feeling and the spectrum of life. We get a kinder, gentler Virginia Woolf in miniature with less booze. “This is very old-fashioned, somehow. All of us sitting here, having all these feelings, all lit up. It’s nice,” the older woman concludes. And so it is.

The final piece of this 85-minute evening (and that includes an actual 15-minute intermission between the first and second plays) is Mr. Theatre Comes Home Different, a showcase for Sinaiko to hurl scenery and mock the sturm und drang of the dramatic arts. He eats a flower, yearns (oh, how he yearns!) and hopes his fake emotions can somehow intersect with our own genuine emotions.

“Gentles all, my name is blank. And I have come and kicked things over. I have breathed badly. I will act quickly, entertain myself, and then leave,” Mr. Theatre tells us. “This is my character, as I would have you have it; and this, my interior life, as I would, for you, outwardly live it.” It’s a whirlwind performance full of Shakespearean notes, signifying nothing (and everything), and it made me think of something Lady Grey said earlier, “The unreadiness is all.”

Will Eno is his own particular kind of genius, and the showcase that is Lady Grey (in ever lower light) is just more evidence of that. To share the darkness with a Will Eno play is one of life’s pleasures. It’s as pretend and as real as it gets.



Lady Grey (in ever lower light) continues through April 10 at EXIT on Taylor, 277 Taylor St., San Francisco. Tickets are $15-$30. Call 800-838-3006 or visit for information.

Theater review: `Thom Pain (based on nothing)’

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Cutting Ball’s `Pain’ hurts so good

What begins in darkness ends about an hour later on a bleak shiver of hope.

Will Eno’s Thom Pain (based on nothing) is many things: a solo show starring one man and an entire audience; a bleak comedy that thrives on paradox; an existential nightmare; a great piece of theater that makes you simultaneously thrilled to be alive and filled with despair.

San Francisco’s Cutting Ball Theater, the go-to company for absurdist, thoughtful, brain-expanding theater, is just about the perfect place for Eno’s 2004 show to land in the Bay Area. In director Marissa Wolf (who also happens to be the new artistic director of Crowded Fire Theatre), Cutting Ball has found a sure-handed guide through Eno’s winding pathos.

Wolf assistant directed Les Waters on Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s brilliant production of Eno’s TRAGEDY: a tragedy last year, and she gets just how funny, how theatrical and how gut wrenching Eno can (and should) be. This is a writer, after all, who would probably like to scream down the world’s rampant inanity, slaughter all the fools and describe every atom of pain as a means of exorcism. But he keeps getting tripped up by certain human things, most notably humor and emotion.

Just why this man, Thom Pain, played brilliantly by Jonathan Bock (pictured, photos by Rob Melrose), has arrived at the theater in his somewhat rumpled black suit, skinny tie and terrible shoes is never explained. It’s a theatrical convention that we, the audience, are in his thrall, and it’s his job to be “the show” and give us, in his words a little “turn on the themes of fear, boyhood, nature, hate, the nature of performance and vice-versa, the heart of man, of woman, et cetera.”

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Thankfully, Thom does put on a show, of sorts. He comes out in the dark and reads to us. In the dark. He attempts, without success, to light a cigarette. The lights finally come on (Stephanie Buchner is a lighting designer with a keen sense of humor). He’s highly aware of his audience to the point that he taunts us, manipulates us, scares us and even punishes us in a clever twist on the old audience-participation trick.

It’s all about contrast: Thom wants to be there sharing the story of how his childhood ended in pain, ugly death and bee stings. But you also sense he’d rather be anywhere else licking his considerable wounds. He’s a showman, a misanthrope and a marvelous poet.

Consider his definition of America’s favorite word, “whatever”: “…the popular phrase we use today to express our brainless and simpering tolerance of everything, the breakdown of distinction, our fading national soul.”

Bock’s performance as Pain can be electrifying. He makes fierce eye contact with the majority of his audience members, and he tends to deliver most of his performance mere inches from the people in the front row. He’s a little scary and a lot funny: “I made serious inroads into a woman, once, doing card tricks with a deck that only had one card left in it. `Pick a card,’ I’d say.”

Or, on the topic of his (naturally) painful love life, he recalls a date: “`You’ve changed,’ she said, the night we met.” He goes on to describe that same woman: “Sometimes you meet someone who you know right away is made up of trillions of different cells, and, she was one of these.”

Director Wolf’s production builds beautifully, and it’s impossible to resist Bock, especially at his most droll. This brief evening of theater feels much more substantial than its hour-plus running time, but you don’t really want it to be any longer. After all, you can only laugh and feel grim around the edges for so long.

Theater, in many respects, fulfills the deep-seated human need for storytelling as means to feel less alone in a giant world. The genius of Eno’s Thom Pain is that we experience the feeling of connection and isolation at the same time. Paradox, it turns out, is highly entertaining.

It’s hard to leave the theater without thinking about old/young Thom talking about the notion of a happy life: “Who can stand the most, the most life, and still smile, still grin into the coming night saying, more, more, encore, encore, you fuckers, you fates, just give me more of the bloody bloody same.”


Thom Pain (based on nothing) continues an extended run through Ma 9 at the EXIT on Taylor, 277 Taylor St., San Francisco. Tickets are $15-$30. Call 800-838-3006 or visit for information.

Review: `TRAGEDY: a tragedy’

Opened March 19, 2008, Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Thrust Stage

Thomas Jay Ryan, Marguerite Stimpson and Danny Wolohan. Photos by Kevin Berne

Laughing through the tragic darkness
three stars Our top story tonight

Reportedly, during a preview performance of Will Eno’s TRAGEDY: a tragedy at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, an audience member rose up mid-show and, on her way out of the theater, muttered loud enough for other audience members to hear: “Oh, for Christ’s sake.”

Seems a perfectly reasonable response to Eno’s offbeat, highly original, thoroughly captivating play, which is most certainly not for every taste. Eno has been called a “Samuel Beckett for the Jon Stewart generation,” and boy is that description apt.

TRAGEDY, now on Berkeley Rep’s Thrust Stage, is a brief, bracing piece of theater that doesn’t play by the usual rules. It’s only about 70 minutes long, but it feels longer because it’s dense and weird — obtuse, to be succinct.

This absurdist foray into a dark, dark night is also full of laughs (most at the expense of the already-absurd notion of TV news). But then again, there’s also despair, disconnection and the inescapable fact of eventual death.

Eno sets the play up as a newscast. Frank, the anchorman (David Cromwell, below), is the distinguished, John Chancellor-like figure in the TV studio. He throws the broadcast variously to John (Thomas Jay Ryan), literally out in a field, Constance (Marguerite Stimpson) stationed at an empty home and Michael (Max Gordon Moore) the legal expert on the steps of the state capital.

Director Les Waters’ challenge is to keep the show moving even though there’s hardly any movement at all. The reporters stand there, holding their microphones and reporting into invisible cameras, and Frank sits at his anchor’s desk, often ignoring what the reporters are reporting.

Thankfully, there’s no video used in the show — this is a fully theatrical evening, imagination required. The actors all use what you might call “TV voices,” which is to say, overly enunciated, overly emphatic language as they report on a massive event that has swept the entire country.

That event, as we come to learn, is the fall of night. Yes, it got dark, and the Channel 3 news team is there to cover the tragedy of it all, even when there’s nothing to report.

“This, of course, as the hours grow more and more late out here, and we, it seems, learn less and less,” John says from the field.

The literalness of the newscast begins to melt away as the night deepens, and the news folk, even solid Frank in the studio, all succumb to nervous breakdowns of varying kinds. They ramble about their childhood, about lost pets, about parental figures, about their deepest misery. During one report, Michael (Moore, below) recalls an uncle who gave him a dictionary, which he “mistook as the long, sad, confusing story of everything.” Later he adds from “the missteps of my life”: “They should have never let me use the alphabet.”

Humor helps make all this flow, but occasionally, Eno slips in some actual human tragedy. We now go to Frank in the studio: “The flashlight is dead and we are left darkling — as we used to say in my youth, which is also gone, with no remains.”

TRAGEDY goes from funny and odd straight to sad. When all the on-air bounce has been drained from the reporters, a slight shred of hope emerges in the form a witness, a “man who happened to be standing right near or somewhere around the horizon as night fell tonight at nightfall.” As played by the pitch-perfect Danny Wolohan, the witness wraps things up with a warm dose of spirituality, some comfort and a little storytelling. It’s not anything like a happy ending, but it’s not bleak either.

Director Waters lets Eno’s words be the play’s action, and that’s a good thing. The actors stand in their locations, suggested by the four zones of Antje Ellermann’s set, and Matt Frey’s lights help provide TV focus in a theater.

This is definitely Beckett land. In one part of the world, you can imagine two sad clowns waiting for the elusive Godot, while in our part of the world, night falls and inspires a tormented newscast.

But Beckett’s Godot allowed characters to actually interact. Eno is only able to connect his characters via cameras and microphones, and that leads to unavoidable detachment. There’s much to admire in the play, and there are emotional moments (especially from Cromwell’s Frank), but there’s also a chill that even the humor can’t banish.

TRAGEDY: a tragedy requires an open mind, a willingness to take the ride without promise of a destination. There are rewards aplenty, but go with someone whose hand you can hold on the way home.

TRAGEDY: a tragedy continues through April 13 on Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Thrust Stage, 2025 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets start at $27. Call 510-647-2949 or visit for information.

Wolohan out!

One of my favorite Bay Area actors, Danny Wolohan, is moving on.

Wolohan was voted by American Theatre magazine as one of the country’s seven actors “worth traveling to see,” and I wholeheartedly agree.

I first met Wolohan when I interviewed him during his stint in the Aurora Theatre Company’s Tough! That was in 2000, and since then, Wolohan has continued to create indelible performances, many for Campo Santo, the San Francisco troupe headed by Sean San Jose that is responsible for some of the most interesting new work in the country.

Wolohan is currently making his Berkeley Repertory Theatre debut in Will Eno’s extraordinary TRAGEDY: a tragedy, which begins previews this weekend and opens next Wednesday on the Thrust Stage.

When Wolohan finishes his run with Berkeley Rep, the San Francisco actor (and die-hard Giants fan, die-hard) is moving to Los Angeles.

“I am going to spend a year there,” Wolohan says. “People have been saying for years I should come down and make some money. I turned 35, and I’m busier than ever, but financially it’s a miracle that actors can make their lives happen doing what we love to do. I’m going to spend a year there and plan to be back in May of ’09 for another Aurora show.”

Wolohan had to turn down theater jobs so he could make the move, and though he admits that, especially in baseball terms, he’s heading into “enemy territory,” he can’t say no to the prospect of gainful, possibly financially lucrative work.

“One of the most difficult things I’ve ever done is walk away from all the good things that are happening here and aim for financial security,” he says. “But I’m coming back no matter what. If it goes really well down there, I’ll use whatever success to help Campo Santo and help it grow. The work is so special there. To my mind, not enough people know about it, and I’d like to affect that.”

For his last hurrah — for now — Wolohan is playing the key role of the Witness in TRAGEDY, a bizarre, funny, chilling one-act play about a TV newscast covering a mysterious, possibly cataclysmic event.

It’s a challenging role if for no other reason than Wolohan only has a few sentences early in the play then a meaty monologue late in the play. But he, like his fellow cast members, remains onstage the entire time, not moving much.

“I’ve done construction off and on for 16 years, so it’s silly for me to complain, but it’s hard to be still that much,” Wolohan says. “But I’m soldiering on through my hardships.”

Describing the play is difficult, even for Wolohan, who has been immersed in it for weeks.

“I think the play succeeds best when its indefinable,” Wolohan says. “One moment it’s the funniest thing ever, the next, it’s the saddest thing I’ve ever seen. Will pulls you in and opens you up with this relentless humor. Once you’re open, he sneaks in these things that are real bombs — all this stuff about the hard-to-handle aspects of being alive, about dying and losing everything but also about how we have to keep going and how hard that is. That’s where the compassion is in the play — in acknowledging how hard it is for us to do that.”

Working with director Les Waters, who is something of wonder with new plays, has been a pleasure, Wolohan says.

“He creates a great atmosphere. Everyone feels safe,” he says. “He lets us make mistakes and continue to be creative. It’s always impressive when someone has talent and good manners and respect for everybody. At a certain level of success, you can get away with not having those qualities. But he’s a real gentleman, and for me, that makes going to work great.”

Remember when you see Wolohan on screens large or small that he’s coming back to the stage. Let’s hold him to that, shall we?

TRAGEDY: a tragedy continues through April 13 on Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Thrust Stage, 2025 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $33 to $69. Call 510- or visit for information.

Me, me, me (and Will Eno and Les Waters)

Shameless plug: I’m the Q in the Q&A Friday for Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s “Page to Stage” series.

At 7 p.m. Friday on the Thrust Stage (2025 Addison St., Berkeley), I’ll be chatting with playwright Will Eno (above), whose Tragedy: a tragedy, is next up at Berkeley Rep, and associate artistic director Les Waters, who’s directing.

Here’s Eno’s bio from the back of the published version of his Thom Pain (based on nothing):
Will Eno lives in Brooklyn. His plays include The Flu Season, Tragedy: a tragedy, KING: a problem play, Intermission and others. His plays have been produced in London by the Gate Theatre, the Soho Theatre Company and BBC Radio, and, in the U.S., by the Rude Mechanicals, the NY Power Company, and Naked Angels. Thom Pain (based on nothing) was awarded the First Fringe Award at the Edinburgh Festival.

Here’s what Edward Albee has to say about Eno: “He strikes me as being the real thing, a real playwright. He takes every chance. And Will keeps the voice his own: he has an awareness of the human condition I wish more people his age had.”

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