Tony Hale played pitiable buffoonsin Arrested Development and Veep, the sitcoms that made him famous. Both are written and edited at the rapid-fire pace of cartoons. In both shows, he’s part of a large ensemble that argues, schemes, or stumbles their way through one absurd plot twist after another. The fools he plays are carried away by the comic mayhem the writers concoct for him and his cohorts. All the hubbub on screen is a pleasant distraction from the humdrum. After watching Hale perform in Will Eno’s Wakey, Wakey, I could see why the actor would want to be the star in a play that’s a complete departure from his work in television.
Wakey, Wakey looks like a TED Talk that’s being broadcast from purgatory. Hale’s character is given the name Guy, but he’s really playing an anonymous, lower-case guy or everyman. He first appears pantsless, lying face down on his stomach. Then the lights cut out. When they turn on again, Guy’s sitting, fully-clothed, facing the audience in a wheelchair. For the first hour, Guy’s the only character on stage but Eno refuses to provide any context for the character. We don’t know if he’s convalescing in a hospital after an accident or if he’s something else, a spectral presence haunting the auditorium. That he can stand up and walk at times also remains a mystery.
As Hale begins to intone Eno’s halting phrases, he addresses the audience directly. But his monologues feel awkward, like a call that doesn’t want a response. Eno lets Guy ramble on without developing his odd assortment of random thoughts. Guy lobs question after existential question to the audience but doesn’t come up with any answers. With each incomplete thought that Guy puts forth, a palpable absence fills the theater. Hale is in command, comfortable on his own and enjoying the spotlight. But there’s none of that sitcom machinery whirling around his performance.
Instead, Eno constructs an anti-play specifically designed not to entertain you. There is no plot, character, or narrative to ground Wakey, Wakey. He provides Guy with a remote control device so that he can bring up slides or videos onto the screen behind him. They may be of sentimental value only if they summon up a memory of your own. The playwright repeatedly breaks the fourth wall with this device. Guy pushes the wrong button a couple of times and music plays or the house lights come up by mistake. Then Guy apologizes for not knowing how to work the thing. For a play that goes to great lengths to point out its own artifice, the remote control bit feels unnecessary and disingenuous.
At one point, someone in the audience sneezed. It prompted Hale to say, “Bless you.” Shortly after that, when a mobile phone rang, followed by a second one, he paused to acknowledge the interruptions before incorporating his annoyance into the line readings. For a few minutes, you could see Buster Bluth’s furious glare in his eyes. But this shift in mood offered evidence that Hale was acting or being in the moment — Eno’s recurring mantra for Wakey, Wakey.
As if he could sense the audience’s increasing impatience with his meandering mind, Guy turned his wheelchair around to play a video of screeching, screaming animals, the kind you can see all over YouTube. None of them seemed to be in pain but their pure expression of emotion, so craftily stitched together, felt like a welcome relief. Up to that point, we’d been held captive to Guy’s confusion as well as his condescension. He eventually led us in a meditation to encourage us to be present and kind. We were asked, politely, to picture the one person we’ve loved the most. It was a lesson in gratitude that was first offered at the Esalen Institute in the 1960s.
I didn’t mind the peace-loving, microdosing vibe that Eno sent out. But Wakey, Wakey is going to disappoint anyone looking to find Hale’s funny bones flailing about in an ironic state of distress. He’s charismatic enough to hold your attention but the words that keep coming out of his mouth stop making sense. The play lacks a character to empathize with like the one in Margaret Edson’s Wit, which dramatizes the specificity of one woman’s life and her imminent death.
We see a photograph of Guy when he was a boy but we don’t get to know anything more about him. Eno, like a TV director on the CW, drops a pop song and a bunch of balloons to create the feeling that’s missing from the script. They don’t compensate for a vague and ultimately inarticulate protagonist.
Wakey, Wakey, through Feb. 16, at A.C.T.’s Geary Theater, 415 Geary St. $15-$110; 415-749-2228 or act-sf.org.