While Don DeLillo’s status as a Great American Novelist, with all those capital letters, is seldom questioned, his work as a playwright is less well known. If this turgid effort, receiving a UK premiere, is anything to go by, that might be best for the great man’s reputation.
The scenario is thin from the start and not developed – a great artist being euthanised by his family after a stroke reduces him to a persistent vegetative state. It’s an important subject, increasingly urgent in our society, but DeLillo adds nothing to the debate. Instead we get recollections of marriage and art that may be of interest, but only if you happen to be an East Coast intellectual. Both niche and unenlightening, it ends up boring.
The characters are well acted but too solipsistic to care about. The charisma needed for the lead comes entirely from Joe McGann’s performance. It’s too hard to credit that others are “clustered” around to support his character’s passing. Josie Lawrence is always watchable as his ex-wife and even manages to inject some humour. Jack Wilkinson takes the part of the son, Sean, and he deals with slowly revealed mixed motives and anger well. But nothing can save incredulity when it comes to the fumbled efforts with morphine; surely you’d read your Google printouts before overdosing your father? The current wife and carer, played admirably by Clara Indrani, has the only part with real emotion. But her role is hampered by some new age sentiment that needs further explication to stop it being nonsensical. When she requests, “Let’s not analyse”, she seems to be in the wrong play.
And these guys talk. Convoluted sentences make up a dense and unbelievable dialogue that ends up a drone. Even at 90 minutes it’s clear some editing is needed, as is energy – director Jack McNamara seems overawed by DeLillo’s text. An effort is made with an expensive set from Lily Arnold – there’s some movement at least – but static scenes drag despite their brevity. Worst of all, nearly every line, no matter how unoriginal or even silly, is presented as profound. It’s an approach that kills the script and hampers the performers. The script is bludgeoned, the performances strangled and the play ends up dead.
Until 8 December 2018
Photos by Tristram Kenton