Last year, the novelist Cormac McCarthy consented to give an interview, his first in 13 years. The article revealed what sort of car he drives (a red Ford pickup), the word-processing device he favors (a blue Olivetti portable), and his contention that “Death is a major issue in the world. For you, for me, for all of us. It just is. To not be able to talk about it is very odd.” So discuss it he will! In McCarthy’s The Sunset Limited, two characters talk about death—with occasional forays into anguish and faith—for the better part of two hours.
In a Harlem apartment, two men— referred to in the script as simply white and black—sit across from one another at a dingy table. That morning, the white man (Austin Pendleton) had attempted a cut-rate Anna Karenina move, hurling himself in front of the Sunset Limited commuter train. The black man (Freeman Coffey) who rescued him will not permit him to leave the apartment until he is satisfied that the white man won’t again attempt suicide. Since the white man can’t convince him, they drink coffee and converse.
Though most of the chitchat concerns philosophical and theological subjects, McCarthy does offer a few details. The white man is a professor who suffers from a debilitating depression. The black man is an ex-con who has served out his murder sentence in Louisiana and decamped to Harlem with Bible in hand and charity in heart. Having found God in prison, he intends to minister to his fellow man. The white man, an atheist, doesn’t appreciate his evangelism.
If the performances are distinguished and the writing pleasantly spare—and occasionally funny, a McCarthy rarity—the play is somewhat unpersuasive. It isn’t simply the details that McCarthy flubs (commuter trains don’t run on the IRT) but the mannered nature of the conversation. The discourses on theodicy and despair seem enforced rather than observed. Perhaps some fault lies with the extreme naturalism of Sheldon Patinkin’s direction; a more expressionistic setting might better serve the text. And yet Patinkin’s direction certainly doesn’t mar the play’s final moments, when McCarthy dispenses with any pretense of realistic conversation and pens the sort of fateful prose—grandiloquent but also grand—that enriches his novels. Crafted by a lesser writer, this speech might have provoked giggles, but McCarthy’s chills. The professor gives an utterance so searingly pessimistic that it crumples the black man. “He didn’t mean them words. You know he didn’t,” the black man assures an absent God. But McCarthy can. And does.