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A CurtainUp Review
The Sunset Limited

You settin here at my table dead to God as the fallen angels and you waitin on me to lay another heresy on you to clutch to your bosom and help shore you up in your infidelity and I ain't goin to do it.

Austin Pendleton and Freeman Coffey
Austin Pendleton and Freeman Coffey
(Photo: Michael Brosilow)
The first news flash about The Sunset Limited is that it brings to our attention the foray into playwriting of award-winning fiction writer, Cormac McCarthy. The second, perhaps even more enticing, bit of news is that the production represents the first step in a budding relationship between 59E59 Theaters and Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre. As to the latter, it is hoped that more of the output of the much-heralded Windy City company can find its way to New York.
McCarthy's script will not disappoint fans of his writing, though it may surprise them some. He has an acute sense of word, and a sense of humor that is its equal, both of which are on display here. Steeped in the same darkness that is typical of his writing, Sunset casts rays of light that are at once hopeful and -- ultimately, it turns out -- hopeless. What's atypical is the setting -- a tenement apartment in New York City where two men engage in a battle of words over the big issues: faith and reason, life and death and the like.

What's also demonstrated, alas, is that the ingredients of great fiction writing don't always lend themselves all that well to the writing of plays. So The Sunset Limited, for all its literary achievement, isn't quite a play. Not unexpectedly, maybe, there is an onslaught of words. What is missing is the element of stageworthy dramatic tension. After over an hour and a half, we (and the characters) are left essentially where we began.

The two characters are known only as Black (Freeman Coffey) and White (Austin Pendleton), descriptors of their races. They came in contact -- literally -- on a subway platform as the slight, elderly White was hurling himself onto the track and the substantial and robust Black arrived -- deus ex machina -- to impede his planned encounter with the "Sunset Limited". They've now repaired to Black's apartment, where Black, a true Believer who found religion while serving time in prison for murder, tries his best to convince White, a non-believing professor who is convinced life is meaningless and beyond salvation, that there is a path to happiness if he we only follow the Book. And so they talk. And debate. And tell stories. And talk more....

Both actors are splendid. Pendleton, his eyes half closed in both resignation and an effort to prevent the arrival of much new thought to interrupt his brain's intellectual processes, is a casual, frustrated and yet resolute man. Coffey is just as steadfast and as vanquished in his joyous awareness of, and insistence on, the one true path and his own failings at saving his new-found friend's soul. He is waging an uphill battle royal, as guardian angel, inquisitor and proselytizer.

Sheldon Patinkin's direction keeps the word pace charging forward, and engineers about as much action as he can from McCarthy's essentially actionless script. Scott Neale has provided a grimey set that's as thoroughly believable as the performaces, and the other design elements are completely appropriate. But in the end the train is in the station, and it's not going anywhere.

The Sunset Limited
by Cormac McCarthy
Directed by Sheldon Patinkin
with Austin Pendleton and Freeman Coffey
Set Design: Scott Neale
Costume Design: Tatjana Radisic
Lighting Design: Keith Parham
Sound Design: Martha Wegener
Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes with no intermission
A production of Steppenwolf Theatre Company
59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street (Park/Madison Avs)
Telephone (212) 279-4200
Opening October 29, 2006, closes November 19, 2006
TUES - SAT @8:15, SAT @2:15, SUN @3:15; $35
Reviewed by Les Gutman based on 10/25/06 performance
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