Saturday, October 9, 2010

"The Sunset Limited": ☼ ☼ BANG

No one who saw Cormac McCarthy's "No Country for Old Men" came away without thinking "this is one scary (expletive) movie." McCarthy's 2006 play "The Sunset Limited" has a lot of that same bleakness, but little of its redemptive power.

Black (Carl Lumbly) lives in a little flat somewhere in New York City. The play takes place in his humble kitchen (made more so by Bill English's set -- lath, but no plaster on the walls, a very old fridge and small, round table, on top of which, in the geometric center of the action, sits a well-worn bible.

Apparently White, a professor (Charles Dean), has just attempted to commit suicide by jumping in front of the Sunset Limited subway (you New Yorkers must turn off your subway knowledge here), but at the last moment Black, an ex-con who turned to Jesus in prison, appeared from out of nowhere and saved him. They have come back to Black's apartment and the discussion has begun: life versus death, good versus bad, nihilism versus hedonism and, of course, God versus No God. Belief battles with Intellect.

Black has saved White the way Jesus saved Black. Now, can Black return the favor for White?

Lumbly is fabulous -- his lay preacher has known many internal battles with his other side, the dude who was serving time in prison for murder. He is bound and determined to show White the way. White isn't buying it. As he says toward the end: "The one thing I'm not giving up is giving up." White closes the show with a long monologue about how desperate he is. This is meant to convince us that the man just plain wants to die, but for us Charles Dean needs to be a little more subtle here. The speech is so very long that you can't help thinking: "Well, OK. You win. Stop talking and just go do it if you really want to."

"The Sunset Limited" is not a whole bunch of fun. There are only two characters. Black, you get, but you never find out why White is the way he is. To this viewer it is the show's fatal flaw. You care about Black but, really, by the end you're ready to run on stage yourself, open that door and let the man fly into the great White abyss.


The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "The Sunset Limited" Two Stars with a BANGLE OF PRAISE. Cormac McCarthy fans will appreciate one of his infrequent plays as a piece of the man's evolving literary puzzle. Carl Lumbly is worth seeing all by himself and his performance earns the BANGLE. In the end, Black lets White go out the door with the promise that he, Black, will be back at the subway in the morning. We all know White is never going to get there. And that's about it.

"The Sunset Limited"
San Francisco Playhouse
533 Sutter Street, San Francisco
Through Nov. 6

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