Don’t sleep on Will Eno’s ‘Wakey Wakey’

It’s nearly impossible to understand speech without context. Sometimes, the conditions of speech are more vital than the words themselves. When we listen, we compare what we hear with what we expect to hear in the given situation.

We try to understand the speaker’s motivations. We understand that speech in a telemarketing phone call, a film, a rally or a hushed exchange of secrets each have unspoken rules that govern them, which help the listener understand the speaker.

The playwright Will Eno knows this. In theater, the common expectation is that every word onstage will either reveal something about a character or advance a plotline. But he wrote “Wakey, Wakey” — a one-act play now at the University of Houston through Sunday, via Hyde Park Theatre and the Catastrophic Theatre — as if to say, “Let’s drop the act. Let’s bring a single man onstage sitting in a wheelchair and have him chat rather aimlessly with us.”

He’s like a student giving a Power Point, but rather than a slideshow, he presents a haphazard version of what he believes the audience wants from a night at the theater. He knows he’s no Tennessee Williams figure, but rather a quiet man sitting down — a character devoid of movement, conflict, or costume changes. He tries his best to make up for his shortcomings.

But this breaking of narrative tradition isn’t merely wry. The play, it turns out, spends its first half stripping the audience of any notion of context, then, in the second half, probes to see if this anti-play can have a spark. It does. Eno, same as Shakespeare and the Greeks, strives to create moments of joy, grief, surprise and introspection. He just doesn’t want to do it with pesky drama.

In eschewing plot, Eno gives himself a difficult challenge — he must weave what is interesting or insightful about the play into the incoherent ramblings of a nameless man. Insight breaks the surface like a marlin, dazzlingly present one second and then gone the next. “This was, what’s the best way to say it, this was supposed to be something else,” the man says in the beginning of the play. “This was going to be a whole different thing.”

What first appears to be a cryptic, vaguely relatable and perhaps sardonically self-aware line of dialogue ultimately takes on a more philosophical meaning by the end of the play.

“Wakey, Wakey” shouldn’t be spoiled. I suppose I can say the play is about a man, who is old enough to have to sit in a wheelchair, reflecting on and honoring his life by giving a speech to an audience. It suggests that the act of living is, in some ways, an act of preparing for the moment of death — preparing to have a few worthy things to say to an audience after a lifetime.

Except, instead of a grand sermon of life lessons, he gives us a series of disconnected images, scenes and phrases. He’s funny and at times wise, but he doesn’t seem prepared at all.

He’s easily distracted, one time by a police siren, which he chooses to comment on. Every moment catches him off guard. This unpreparedness becomes a wonderful metaphor for the true subject matter of “Wakey, Wakey,” which is dying.

“People talk about matters of life and death,” the man says. “But it’s really just life, isn’t it? When you think about it.”

And we do.