‘Sunset Limited’ defies the odds

If this report appears too effusive about SF Playhouse’s West Coast premiere of “The Sunset Limited” by Cormac McCarthy, consider the circumstances:

The Playhouse, a tiny company with a miniscule theater (without a sign or a poster outside 533 Sutter St.), opened its eighth season of all new plays Saturday with a 100-minute dialogue about the meaning of life, the reason for living (or not) and the existential debate between religion and atheism.

On the face of things, it seems a ridiculous, pretentious and impossible undertaking. Yet, it’s brilliant theater and a breathtaking high-wire act.

Carl Lumbly and Charles Dean, two great actors from the local theater community with national credits, make the most of a severely minimalist plot.

Lumbly’s character (known only as Black) is a born-again ex-con, and Dean (White) is a despairing intellectual (probably a professor, which is what Black calls him), trying to end his life.

White has just tried to jump in front of the Sunset Limited, and Black saved him, brought him to his place and will not let him go, knowing that he will try to kill himself again.

The play, in its entirety, is Black persisting in a conversation in order to stall White. That’s it.

And yet, more than an hour and a half goes by, without intermission, and the story — both meager and esoteric in its existential debate — grabs and holds.

The script by McCarthy (acclaimed author of “No Country for Old Men”) is complex but clear, funny and moving, providing real drama.

Minor issues crop up — like the line, “I am a professor of darkness,” and a bothersome equation between atheism and hopelessness — yet the vast majority of the text is in the vicinity of George Bernard Shaw and Arthur Miller.

Major credit goes to Bill English, SF Playhouse company founder and director, stage director and set designer (he might also have been taking tickets at one point).

Directing a “My Dinner with André”-type play of two men talking is a dangerous enterprise, provoking lesser directors to do too much. English resists that and instead moves his actors in a disciplined, convincing manner.

Director, actors and playwright collaborate in creating a challenging, compelling, surprisingly suspenseful play. San Francisco’s grand world of little theater — declared dead too often — is still very much alive.

THEATER REVIEW

The Sunset Limited

Presented by the SF Playhouse

Where:
533 Sutter St., San Francisco
When: 7 p.m. Tuesdays, 8 p.m. Wednesdays-Fridays, 3 and 8 p.m. Saturdays; closes Nov. 6
Tickets: $40 to $50
Contact: (415) 677-9596, www.sfplayhouse.org

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