A rare play by the dour and bleak Cormac McCarthy shouldn’t be missed.
A case in point, a two-hander, “The Sunset Limited,” just opened at the African American Cultural Center’s Paul Robeson Theatre. Directed by Willie Judson Jr., it stars a pair of old pros, Kinzy Brown and Dennis Clary, in a 90-minute, Beckett-like verbal joust, the Bible debated, souls discussed, questions aplenty, answers elusive.
McCarthy, now 80, is still a prolific writer – novels, television, the Big Screen. His work is lauded, dark, violent, existentialist, apocalyptic: “The Road,” “No Country for Old Men,” and the current movie, “The Counselor.” “The Sunset Limited,” written for the stage in 2006, also was adapted for television with Tommy Lee Jones and Samuel L. Jackson in 2011.
The story begins on a train platform – the Sunset Limited runs between Los Angeles and New Orleans – where “Black,” an ex-con and a born-again evangelical, saves “White,” a self-described “professor of darkness” and an atheist, from leaping into the path of the train.
Black takes White – names matching their skin color – to his sparse ghetto apartment, and talk begins and arguments rage. Black is a fan of Jesus, a staunch believer, his theories developed in prison and on the mean streets, where junkies and thieves are his friends and his Bible is always within reach – “a guide for the ignorant and the sick at heart,” he says. He is aghast at White’s desperation and that the rumpled old academic is so fed up with life, viewing it as futile and dishonest. Futility? Black is an expert on the subject.
But White’s convictions are strong. “The one thing I won’t give up is giving up,” he screams at Black, whose own beliefs begin to take a hit. Black seems cowed by White’s way with words, his logic, his unshakable quest to end it all. If it’s not the Limited, some other way. “I yearn for the darkness,” White admits, but he’s wary of meeting in death the people he has known in life. Black begins to see some wisdom in that view.
So it goes, this terse, strange ode to contrary points of view. Black is played with ceaseless energy by Brown, a Robeson favorite who is back after a hiatus. He roams the stage, grasping for inspiration to help another person as he seeks scripture lessons on purpose and salvation. White, a Dennis Hopper look-alike, wild-eyed, determined, his anti-God rants honed over the years, is nevertheless occasionally amazed at Black’s fervor. Clary, who back in the day was a regular with the Buffalo Ensemble Theatre, is convincing in his despair and even, temporarily, buys into Black’s spiritual advice. Clary’s White never condescends or appears to one-up. Wise interpretation.
Black prays. White leaves. More than likely, a permanent parting.
The play stumbles at the start: The botched suicide is in near-darkness and only becomes clarified moments later. Later, some rainbow lighting designs come and go.
Overall, director Judson – “Kafka on wheels,” White wails – sets a pulsating pace, and there is an astute bit of casting for “The Sunset Limited.” It’s a piece to ponder, Cormac McCarthy in urban surroundings. The play is an admirable choice by the Robeson: excellent cast chemistry, sage direction and, except for a few glitches, it’s fine work by all involved.
3½ stars (Out of 4)
What: “The Sunset Limited”
Where: Paul Robeson Theatre, African American Cultural Center, 350 Masten Ave.
Through: Dec. 1
Info: 884-2013 or www africancultural.org