Playwright: Cormac McCarthy
At: Steppenwolf Garage, 1624 N. Halsted St.
Phone: 312-335-1650; $15
Runs through: June 25
BY MARY SHEN BARNIDGE
The two men in novelist-turned-playwright Cormac McCarthy's drama are named White and Black, and, yes, the effete White is played by Austin Pendleton and the earthy Black by Freeman Coffey, but this is not—repeat, NOT—a racial designation, any more than in a chess game. Their duel is a theological dispute, its circumlocutions sufficiently intricate as to leave theatergoers allowing themselves to be distracted by superficial motifs hopelessly winded by the intellectual aerobics.
We meet White and Black in the kitchen of the latter's dingy apartment—a picture of urban squalor right down to the five locks on the door—after Black has foiled White's attempt to jump in front of the Sunset Limited ( which McCarthy seems to think is a New York City subway, but this is something else that will only confuse you if you dwell on it ) . Over the next 90 minutes, they proceed to debate their belief in God—or lack of such—and its effectiveness in deterring suicide. Since Black has trod a hard path before arriving at his convictions, his investment in the outcome is far greater than that of the ennui-wracked White.
This all makes for an interesting Platonic dialogue—Waiting For Godot on the IRT—but what makes it a PLAY is the interpretive schematic imposed on it by director Sheldon Patinkin and his two actors, both of whom have played these characters many times before. Together they create highs and lows in the dramatic action; inject moments of conflict and camaraderie; and initiate gratuitous stage business—pacing restlessly, moving chairs, warming up and eating soup, making and drinking coffee—while swapping repartee with such hyperarticulate verbal agility, we can almost hear the words clash like steel rapiers.
McCarthy must, of course, keep his personae in the room for the duration of his symposium, so that when White repeatedly protests that he must leave, he is always refuted by Black—'And go WHERE? You're not supposed to BE here anymore.' And in THAT fact, ironically, lies the most cogent argument against choosing to hasten one's own departure from this frustrating world. If you're dead, how could you engage in metaphysical discussions like this?