At first glance, reviewing Cormac McCarthy's despondent “novel in dramatic form,” The Sunset Limited, just before Christmas may seem churlish. But it's not, because the play is a study in redemption.
Whether that redemption works out is a minor point that separates McCarthy from, say, Charles Dickens. The point for McCarthy is the tug and pull between the view that our lives, and our histories, are worth redeeming, and the counterview that they're not.
The drama lies in the debate. Some have critiqued the debate in The Sunset Limited as redundant and static. It may suffer from the former, but to argue that this muscular production, directed by John Perrin Flynn, is static is as foolish as arguing that a lively wrestling match is static. If you're looking at it from a satellite passing by, it may appear static. Not so if you're in the ring, or anywhere near the ring.
This play demands you get into the ring. That's a responsibility that comes with buying a ticket.
The production is presented by Rogue Machine at Theatre/Theater. It opened in early November, and an extension was recently announced through the end of January.
The play's title refers to a New York subway train and the attempt by an aging Caucasian university professor, unsubtly named White (Ron Bottitta), to hurl himself under it. White is saved from himself by a bystander named Black (Tucker Smallwood), also christened for his skin color. The action unfolds in Black's nearby spartan apartment, where Black has brought White to redeem him — that is, to spare him from the indignities of the local mental ward, which is where White surely would have been taken if Black had released him from his clutches. And so this is a kind of hostage drama, a battle of wits between White's educated nihilism and Black's evangelical Christian optimism.
If you remove the specifics of the religion, you've got a Dickensian paradigm, which does make the play something of a Christmas story.
There are some parallels in structure to Marsha Norman's 1983 Pulitzer Prize–winning play, 'Night Mother — also a hostage drama in which a woman struggles to prevent her daughter from acting upon a meticulously organized plan to shoot herself. The mother-daughter bond, and the shared history of family stories, makes Norman's play a more emotionally wrenching debate than McCarthy's. Yet they meet at the same philosophical fulcrum, whereby the decision to off oneself isn't the result of some single traumatic incident (a dramatic psychology employed since the ancient Greeks) but rather the result of generalized fatigue stemming from life's stream of disappointments and failures, and the ever more persuasive loss of faith that the pattern is ever going to change for the better, or change at all.
I'm not familiar with New York subway trains that possess such romantic monikers as the Sunset Limited. Anybody living along the railroad tracks that run from New Orleans to Los Angeles, however, will know of the legendary train route carrying that name. It's been running since the end of the 19th century. McCarthy deserves the benefit of poetic license when naming his potentially lethal subway train after a mythic daily trek across the dusty, barren desert into some Western abyss.
Unlike that train, McCarthy's play has arrived here along a more circuitous route, premiering at Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre in 2006 before rolling into New York City, then Atlanta, San Francisco and points overseas. This production marks its Los Angeles premiere.
McCarthy is the Pulitzer Prize–winning author of The Road, as well the novel No Country for Old Men, adapted by the Coen brothers into their much-heralded film of the same title. In some ways, The Sunset Limited feels like an accompanying novel-play to The Road, grappling as it does with a world fatigued by its saturation in evil, and the question of whether anything can be redeemed from it.
Black is trying whatever he can to prevent White from completing his task of self-annihilation. What scant appliances exist — a coffeemaker, for example — are bolted down. This is because Black has made it his calling to save lost souls, including desperate drug dealers and petty criminals who don't think twice about burglarizing the very people who offer them a helping hand. So Black is skeptical enough to place a thin metal wrap around his coffeemaker yet idealistic enough to hold an unwavering belief in the world's beauty, to find glistening sparks of light in the shards of a broken beer bottle, smashed on his sidewalk or perhaps even over somebody's head.
Black is what might be called a risen angel — like Lucifer inverted. He's done time for murder and doesn't care to speak about it, despite White's vicarious and lurid curiosity. What sneaks out, in their game of hide-and-speak, is Black's jailhouse epiphany, a conversion to the light after a lunchroom brawl that left Black at death's door, in physical and psychic anguish, chained to a hospital bed. It was there that God spoke to him. Or, to be more precise, that Black heard God's voice. From White's perspective, that's a crucial distinction.
This is because White's despair — though in Bottitta's hands, it appears more as acquiescence — comes from a blend of aging, self-loathing, contempt for his academic circle, and a keen, literate comprehension of world history. White does not view the latter as an inexorable march of progress but as a long, twisted march of conquests and their accompanying sadism and anguish. The veneer of civilization has been fraying through the millennia, White argues. As a civilization, we're not ascending; we're dancing in circles. And White has arrived at the unyielding conclusion that the whole endeavor, macrocosmic and personal, is pointless.
His is not the most sophisticated of arguments. (He'd be smarter in Dostoyevsky's pen.) Rather, it seems at times a bookish rationalization for a personal malaise. Yet a personal malaise is sufficient to make one suicidal. It's not a requirement to carry the weight of the world in order to hurl oneself into the path of an oncoming train. The weight of one's own life can lead to much the same trajectory.
The play is philosophically and psychologically intriguing, but what makes the play a mesmerizing event is the performances: the chemistry, the visceral response and counterresponse, the playfulness, the mockery, the vernacular. In one scene White shrieks his despair, and the despair of existence, in a style probably intended to be some grandiose catharsis. The mere shrieking of it, however, reduces the scale of the argument to the pathological. It's a rare exception to a performance in which, in general, Bottitta wears White's confidence in the pointlessness of human endeavor as comfortably as a warm pair of pajamas. His argument is generally so persuasive because it comes from self-assurance.
Smallwood's Black is beyond reproach, as is the interplay between the pair.
THE SUNSET LIMITED | By CORMAC McCARTHY | Presented by ROGUE MACHINE at THEATRE/THEATER, 5041 Pico Blvd., L.A. | Mon. & Fri., 8 p.m., Sat., 5 p.m., Sun., 7 p.m. (no perfs Dec. 25-Jan. 6 or Jan. 28); through Jan. 31 | (323) 960-4424, roguemachinetheatre.com