“Is it now?” asks Guy (Tony Hale), lying prone on the floor when the lights come up on “Wakey, Wakey,” Will Eno’s almost-solo play now at American Conservatory Theater.
The multiple implications of his query won’t become fully apparent until an hour later, at the play’s end.
But the meaning of the quirky title registers soon enough. This is a wake-up call.
Guy, bearded and in a wheelchair most of the time, is a low-key figure, chatting amiably with us, showing slides and videos (one of screaming animals is both chilling and hilarious), occasionally consulting note cards that give him the kind of grandiose stage directions that leave actors befuddled. He rambles and even mumbles at times, or grows thoughtfully silent, and always, always he talks directly to the audience.
At times blindingly bright lights sweep over us, so we know he can actually see us in the huge Geary Theatre.
“I don’t know what to say to you,” he admits sheepishly, and later, “We’re here to say goodbye and hopefully get a little better at saying hello.”
He offers suggestions: to think of one person who did something that influenced the entire trajectory of our lives, and later, to close our eyes (but we don’t have to if we don’t want to, he assures us) and imagine someone, anyone — what they’re wearing, the quality of the surrounding light, every detail.
It’s a sense memory exercise that actors sometimes use, and here it’s part of Eno’s overall goal to encourage a deeper sensorial observation that can lead us to a more profound human connection — with our own inner self, and with others.
“Is there something recognizably human in everybody’s eyes?” wonders Guy. And, elsewhere, “We’re here to learn who we are.”
Comical at times, existential in nature, ultimately poignant, “Wakey, Wakey” is likely to affect viewers in individual, personal ways.
And under the sensitive direction of Anne Kauffman, it’s a reminder of Eno’s role as a Beckett for our times — although a gentler, more accessible, perhaps more deeply humane version of the 20th-century master playwright, one whose text has the ring of everyday, authentic speech.
As for Hale: Familiar to TV audiences as the dysfunctional mama’s boy in “Arrested Development” and Julia Louis-Dreyfus’ overeager assistant in “Veep,” he’s completely different here: soft-spoken and vulnerable, a simpatico Everyman.
In a smaller role as sort of visiting angel, Kathryn Smith-McGlynn offers strong support.
She also appears in a short, whimsical curtain raiser, “The Substitution,” which Eno wrote for this ACT production. In it, she’s a substitute teacher in a driver’s ed class who abandons the curriculum for deeper philosophical musings. “Wakey, Wakey” doesn’t really need a curtain raiser, and in a way it dilutes the impact of the main event, but it’s an effective amuse-bouche, with actors from ACT’s master’s degree program as the befuddled students.
Presented by American Conservatory Theater
Where: Geary Theater, 405 Geary St., S.F.
When: 7 p.m. Tuesdays, 2 and 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays, 7:30 p.m. Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays; 2 p.m. Sundays; closes Feb. 16
Tickets: $15 to $110