Through Sunday, June 10
Manbites Dog Theater, Durham

I’d love nothing more than to give Manbites Dog Theater a critical victory lap for Wakey, Wakey, its final show before morphing into an arts-supporting (but no longer producing) entity. No words here could diminish the reputation artistic director Jeff Storer and managing director Ed Hunt have earned over three decades at the head of the indispensable theater company that helped establishall but single-handedly, at timesnot only a site for cutting-edge independent theater in our region but also the context in which it could flourish.

Manbites Dog began as a direct challenge to the status quo, with a mission to radically broaden the scope of stories and faces visible on local stages. It has hosted a constellation of our best itinerant theater companies and nurtured a generation of emerging stage artists. These all demand our respect; the eleven five-star reviews that the INDY‘s critics have conferred on Manbites Dog productions since 2004 far outstrip other area companies.

But the company’s own standard of excellence and our commitment to those who will continue this work after it’s gone obligate us to speak just as candidly about Wakey, Wakey as the company’s previous productions have spoken, time and again, to our community. On one level, Manbites Dog’s final show is a transparent exercise in theatrical grief counselinga dubious bit of fan service for the company’s longtime supporters.

Will Eno’s 2017 script applies a postmodern aesthetic of awkwardness and failureboth personal and theatricalto the one subject where defeat is a given: mortality. At the start, central character Guy (played by Manbites stalwart Derrick Ivey) wakes up under a sudden spotlight at center stage. He jolts upright from the floor, yelling, “Is it time? I thought I had more time!” As that classic actor’s nightmare continues, he ruefully admits, “This was supposed to be something else. … But, you know, tick tock, tick tock,” adding dryly, “That’s the sound of a clock, for you youngsters.”

Guy acknowledges that time and nature conquer our best-laid plans: “You adjust. And your life is the adjustment. To the real things.” But of course, there comes a point when no further adjustment is possible. For Guy, it’s when he can no longer rise from the wheelchair he’s previously stepped out of to underline its artifice as a prop. From that point, Wakey, Wakey turns into a coercive living wake: an indeterminate time spent with a man awaiting his own death, armed with little more than a stack of notecards, a juice box, an animal video, and an abiding sense of irony. Despite Ivey’s convincing emotional inventory, an unwelcome sense of lassitude deliberately creeps in. It will be familiar to anyone who has sojourned for days with a loved one in a hospital.

Actor Lakeisha Coffey’s late appearance as Lisa, a nurse, injects moments of compassion and patient conversation. But who is Guy, exactly? Given Wakey, Wakey‘s marked similarities to an earlier Eno playThom Pain (based on nothing), which Manbites Dog produced in 2006it seems like an awkward, lengthy coda featuring the same character later in life. Both have the same morbid fixations, the same weakness for showbiz hokum. Instead of Thom Pain‘s raffle that never occurs, Wakey, Wakey‘s Guy mentions (spoiler alert) nonexistent free T-shirts and 3-D glasses beneath our chairs: devices as flimsy as the projected anagram puzzles that momentarily interrupt the tedium as he and we wait for the end.

Both Thom Pain and Wakey, Wakey also share another weakness: the hasty shorthand Eno uses, from single-word incantations to a supposed “gratitude exercise,” to refer to emotional states instead of writing scenes and dialogue that actually evoke them. If Guy already seems like a wan version of Thom Pain‘s protagonist, he does triple-duty in this production, also standing in for Manbites Dog itself. After his demise, Lisa, honoring his last request, struggles to transform Sonja Leigh Drum’s generic office set into a supposed site of celebration. As balloons and a disco ball descend, dance music and colored lights fill the space, and the walls split open to reveal props and set pieces from classic Manbites Dog productions, including The Mystery of Irma Vep, Mr. Burns, and The Nether.

But the opening-night crowd didn’t feel much like dancing, being enervated and sweat-drenched after spending seventy-five minutes in an overheated room. That’s hardly news; for fourteen years, the theater’s central air has failed to match its high-intensity lights in hot weather. We always appreciated Manbites Dog for pushing us out of our emotional comfort zones, but less so for pushing us out of our physical ones.

A “celebration of life” is just a funeral by another name, but if Wakey, Wakey is an act of theatrical self-pity, it’s as close to an earned one as you can get. When a company this influential goes dark, a great loss is taking place. As so many of its shows have, Manbites Dog’s closing also pushes us to reexamine our concepts of what local theater looks like, where it can occur, and what it can achieve. The theater wasn’t immune to the perils of complacency underlying its longevity. In an alternate universe, there’s a Manbites Dog that pursued long-term growth and sustainability by gradually building a professional company infrastructure, employing development, marketing, and management specialists. In their absence, and saddled with the burdens of its real-estate acquisition, the theater always struggled to fund its next production. Plans to expand into the building’s second story, which would have made it functional year-round, never materialized. Still, Manbites Dog Theater took us far in thirty-one years, both by raising the bar for local theater and by illustrating the challenges the next generation must overcome.