The Sunset Limited
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
October 28, 2006
In his play The Sunset Limited, Cormac McCarthy explores some of the most fundamental questions that human beings ask. Is there a God? Is there such a thing as Good and Evil? What is faith?
McCarthy frames his discussion as a long conversation between two men, whom he calls Black and White, as indeed they are: a devout Black man who found God when he was in prison, and a white intellectual atheist who rejected God and faith long ago. As the names suggest, the sides in McCarthy's argument are rigged and unwavering, and ultimately that proved very problematic for me: there's no arc for either character here, because neither is allowed by their author to convince the other of his position. Is it any wonder that I wasn't convinced either? I think most adults who will see The Sunset Limited will walk in to the theatre pretty much resolved on the issues considered here, and I don't think anything that happens in the play will change anybody's mind.
White, all edge and abrasion as interpreted by Austin Pendleton, has tried to kill himself earlier today, until he was rescued by Black. Black, who is played with gorgeous, earnest simplicity by Freeman Coffey, is endlessly kind, generous, and accommodating as he tries to keep his guest from exiting the premises, for he's fearful that White will go right back down to the subway and try to commit suicide again.
So the two men talk, about some personal stuff (though not very much) and about their beliefs and, to an extent, how they came by them. White is disillusioned and disenchanted by the modern world for reasons that are actually fairly cliche; McCarthy doesn't provide him with enough of a back story to make his arguments feel passionately his own, unfortunately. Black had an epiphany after a nasty knife fight in the penitentiary and discovered a faith that he now wants to share with others, or at least with White.
It occurred to me that Black might be some kind of angel, or that White has actually died and Black is some sort of welcoming committee on the way to the Afterlife. But I left the play rejecting both of these ideas, because the ending—which I'm loathe to reveal but which tips the scale in a particular way that feels enormously imposed by the playwright—didn't seem to support either notion. I guess I was looking for some kind of narrative idea, but on reflection, I don't think The Sunset Limited has one.
Which leads me to wonder exactly what this play is, beyond an exercise for actors and audience. Don't get me wrong: the talk that goes on for an uninterrupted 90 minutes in this piece is compelling, provocative, and significant. But it finally is just talk; with no protagonist or antagonist and no dramatic journey, I'm not sure that this amounts to much more than a well-articulated philosophical debate.
The set, Black's humble kitchen, is well-designed by Scott Neale; it's claustrophobic and gives the piece a No Exit feel that director Sheldon Patinkin emphasizes in his staging—these characters are never allowed to move beyond the metaphorical boxing ring that they've been placed in as they play out this match. Tatjana Radisic's costumes and Keith Parham's lighting are naturalistic, belying the cosmic themes that McCarthy ultimately seems interested in exploring in this intriguing but ultimately unsatisfying work.