So we’re in a theater, to see a show, and this guy wanders onto the bare stage and starts talking. He’s come there to talk to us—more exactly, he’s there to recite Will Eno’s new monologue, Title and Deed (Signature Theatre), and make it sound like he’s talking spontaneously. Only we know he’s not—at least, all of us do except for one woman at the press performance I attended who kept trying to respond, or to prompt the guy.
That may have flustered him a little—he flashed her a few startled glances—but he handled it coolly, like a professional. (The guy is a professional, of course, Conor Lovett by name.) And I don’t blame her much: Eno’s text offers a lot of seeming invitations for audience response, most of which get ignored, as most of us know this sort of work means them to be. Overly encouraged, an audience might otherwise contribute so much that the playwright and performer would hardly be heard; the flood of assembled egos would turn it all into a Facebook news feed instead of a performance.
Eno means his text to be heard, and Lovett, with his strong yet diffident presence, does an excellent job of keeping it in focus, subtly nuanced. The result’s never stupid, always honest and not without laughter. Once or twice the monologue even offers a fleck of something you might call poetry. But it stays locked in its premise, which is its awareness of its own existence. And the frustrating, paradoxical result is that it doesn’t, finally, exist: It fills its 70 minutes with our consciousness of its having done so, and then exits, quietly, leaving us unharmed, perhaps mildly diverted or provoked, but no more. We’ve received zero substance: It’s like dinner at the Platonic restaurant, invented by the characters in I forget which Mamet play, where the evening’s special is “idea of ham.”
Not that ham, in the theatrical sense, appears on Eno’s menu. A restrained, understated tone marks his approach. His speaker, identified only as “Man,” is just that: a male person who’s drifted here from some foreign place (cue brief run of low-key airport jokes), why we never learn, on his way to somewhere else, or so he presumes. Though not conscious of having been scripted by an authorial hand, Man seems fairly sure that destiny will ultimately haul him off to yet another disorienting locale.
What did destiny want Eno’s Man to say to us? Nothing in particular, apparently. He drops a few remarks about the difference between his homeland’s customs and ours; he talks a little about love and disappointment, and about girls with whom he mostly seems to have messed up his relationships. He seems different from others mainly in the trait of having so few specific traits of his own. Authors do, unkindly, blur their characters in the effort to universalize them; consider the old argument over Willy Loman’s Jewishness. Willy, though, did have some specifics: I’ve never worried much about his ethnic identity, but I often puzzle over his hardly ever mentioning his mother, who raised him.
As far as we know, Eno’s Man doesn’t have anything like Willy’s sample cases, New England territory, employer, or wife and kids; he does have some (predictably messy) emotional recollections of his mother. I guess that counts for something. At any rate, he reminds us of existence, and it’s good, when you go to the theater, to be reminded that you exist, and that you can’t ever be certain what meaning, if any, your existence carries. But surely entering any theater to see a play automatically reminds you of that: How could you be there and not be aware that you exist? But maybe that too has changed in our time, and the new ultra-electronified generation knows only that it’s part of a global media soup, and needs to be reminded by theater that it has feet, a heart, a brain, a degree of independent volition. But I’ve reached my word limit, and since Eno’s Man only spoke to fill a theater evening, I told myself I would only write to fill this space. Now I have.