How to respond to a flubbed proposal? You are courted by a good man with honest intentions; he is smart; he is sensitive, but he is a weak public speaker who buckles at The Question, intending to call down starlight and summon up hellfire to light your fabled path but coughing and simpering and shrugging, ‘I suppose I love you,’ instead?
An isolated man among a murder of suspended wooden polygons (strung about madly like a cubist munitions store in mid-explosion) would have us believe this world is strange, our civilization unsympathetic, unreckoning. He says he is not from this place and sheepishly believes that gives him license to comment on its more obvious mores not only with indemnity, but also with authority, albeit with the balking, unassuming authority of a child who asks guilelessly, “What’s a mortgage?” And that would be all right; it would be fine: he is charming, witty, orphaned – endearingly self-deprecating. But wit is a selfish virtue, valuable only to itself: dilemmas are not riddled out by wit – wit merely secures a more elegant knot. And charm may beguile the looking glass, but it cannot carry you through it; ultimately, the charming man is left staring only at himself.
Will Eno’s Title and Deed is too much a mirror, a show that works best if the audience is neither more intelligent nor less reflective than the aw-shucks Beckettesque monologue to which they are treated. Which is not to say the show is a flop; on the contrary, it is an engrossing, entertaining and breezy seventy-minute diversion into the foothills of existential melancholy, where the peaks are too mild to inspire the terrifying sublime but high enough to ensure a satisfying day hike.
Sole actor Conor Lovett enlivens the best of the material and mollifies the lamest of it. He moves little, and so we are carried along by his lilt and tone alone. The ride is comfortable: his comic timing is inimitable, his charisma inexhaustible. Unfortunately, he is not a simple clown. He is the wasteland Pagliacci, choking on confused, homesick tears. To him our world is an unaccountable place. He asks – charmingly, at times hilariously – whether we celebrate the minutiae of everyday life (a neighbor’s marital tiff, an unseasonably hot day) with the exuberant parades and unrestrained weeping of his people. He muses over the insoluble feebleness of words; what wonder, he exclaims, that even a tenth of our genuine meaning can be conveyed. All these observations, however brightly observed, are clouded in the persistent melancholy of a decent, thinking man alone and abroad. The world is sad, if funny, and our hapless tour guide through it would have us feel the enormous weight of both the comedy and tragedy, a spiritual balance that bespeaks wisdom—only, when it comes time to dispense with that wisdom, we are treated to hawing, empty ambiguity and adolescent sophistry. ‘How strange the world is,’ he muses, ‘but oh well – I guess that’s just how people are.’ He asks but never answers, ‘Who knows?’ and wears out the refrain. He makes many fatuous contradictions like, ‘I suppose the world has always been this way. But has the world ever really been any way?’
It is not the audience’s job to fill in the intellectual gaps in a show. It is not their burden to answer the writer’s questions: it ought to be their privilege.
The most disappointing moment in the show comes when our Christ-lite hobo removes from his rucksack a toolbox, one of (we’re told) his only two possessions. ‘This item has a story to tell,’ we’re assured, ‘but not in words.’ Lifting the rickety toolbox aloft like the Ark of the Covenant, he stands in silence for twenty, thirty seconds, allowing the audience sufficient time to observe the item, internalize its qualities and fill in the script like unpaid interns scribbling Mad Libs.
The world is strange, as everyone knows. Civilization is mad and cruel: we have lived, we have seen. Countless writers have touched on the subject – to brush against is not to possess. One cannot simply mention great emotion and hope to summon it, nor can acknowledging the dark kindle a light within it.
You will feel what emotion you bring to the show simply by being reminded of it – we will all die, remember? Love is hard, or have you forgotten? You will laugh often as the jokes are well-written and marvelously delivered. You will be entertained. But that is all. You will feel nothing lighter than your own sense of wonder and nothing heavier than your natural anxieties. For a show that purports to be about us all, shouldn’t we commune with something other than ourselves?
This is a heap of criticism to unload on a show I enjoyed and recommend. I just wish there were some endorsement I could make of it other than to sigh and shuffle and shrug, ‘Almost.’