Some novelists seem like natural-born playwrights. At first glance, Cormac McCarthy wouldn't appear to be among them. He writes first-rate dialogue in novels like Blood Meridian and No Country for Old Men, but nobody reads him for the dialogue. The main attraction is always atmosphere. McCarthy creates dread more effectively than just about anybody, and he does it with prose that's disorienting and apocalyptic and savage. He throws obsolete words next to words of his own invention, often foregoing clarity in favor of effect. And he doesn't use quotation marks, so his characters' speeches blend into his harsh Western landscapes.
What happens, then, when he's limited to dialogue alone? Judging from The Sunset Limited, making its West Coast premiere at SF Playhouse, he manages just fine. The play is billed as "a novel in dramatic form," but that isn't quite true; it's a flat-out drama, and a pretty old-fashioned one at that. In fact, the first hour is almost distressingly conventional. But McCarthy being McCarthy, the script takes a pitch-black turn as it draws to a close, leaving the audience genuinely shaken. (Warning: If you're really sensitive about spoilers, you might want to skip the rest of this review.)
The premise wouldn't be out of place on the Hallmark Channel. Just before the play begins, an African-American do-gooder (Carl Lumbly) saves a white nihilist (Charles Dean) from jumping in front of a train known as the Sunset Limited. We join the two characters — named simply "Black" and "White" — in the do-gooder's humble New York apartment shortly afterward. Black is an ex-con who's found Jesus; White is an overeducated cynic who believes that "the world is basically a forced-labor camp" and that happiness is "contrary to the human condition." White wants to go back to his own apartment, but Black won't let him leave until he's confident that the guy won't attempt suicide again. But for all Black's efforts, White appears implacable: "Maybe I have no beliefs," he says. "I believe in the Sunset Limited."
If that sounds contrived, that's because it is — the setup unfolds like a gob-smackingly obvious parable. The characters spend 90 minutes disagreeing about the nature and existence of God, while Black tries to convince White that life is, in fact, worth living. "The light is all around you," Black says, "'cept you don't see nothin' but shadow." But White, who seems perfectly happy to be beyond redemption, insists that there's always a limit to God's influence. "Even God gives up at some point," he says. "There's no ministry in hell."
In any other version of this story, Black would show White the path to redemption, and the audience would thrill at seeing a doomed soul rescued from self-annihilation. That's certainly where the play seems to be heading for much of its length. But McCarthy is smart enough, not to mention diabolical enough, to use the conventional trappings of his story to catch us off-guard, showing us the path toward uplift before shoving us back in front of that oncoming train. It's a cruel bit of dramatic trickery, and it works.
At least, it works when you cast extraordinary actors. It can't be easy to find nuance in characters with names like Black and White, especially when one accuses the other of "see[ing] everything in black and white." But Lumbly and Dean, both exceptional performers with decades of experience on the local stage, manage to make these men fully realized individuals instead of mere avatars. In particular, Dean conveys the quiet desperation of a man who's simply given up, who believes that "rage is really only for the good days." But rage never seems far beneath the surface: he may appear passive at first, but that's because he's just too tired for anger. And when the anger does come, it feels like a giant payoff after an hour of suspense.
In the play's final minutes, White unleashes a monologue of such bitterness and ferocity, so full of the disappointments of late middle age, that it sounds more like Philip Roth than Cormac McCarthy. "I yearn for the darkness," he says. "I want the dead to be dead forever. And I want to be one of them." What's especially disturbing is the pure lucidity of his speech. If you're a committed atheist, you won't find anything incorrect in White's conclusion, though you may object to the bleakness of his perspective. His despair is disheartening, but it is precise. And if you're a person of faith, the speech might just be the scariest thing you encounter this Halloween season.
Much of the credit here goes to director Bill English, whose staging imparts a fair amount of liveliness to McCarthy's static script. He contributes one final touch to make the last few moments even more unsettling: At play's end, all we hear is the wind, and all we see are the stars. It's as if Black's apartment isn't in a city after all, but floats untethered out in deep space. The sense of isolation is overwhelming. And when the lights finally go down, you won't be the only one who feels a genuine chill — this is one production that seems to drop the temperature in the room by at least 10 degrees. Despite an unpromising start, it's that troubling, and it's that good.