Dave Eggers’ bestselling memoir “A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius” enchanted youthful hordes while annoying the hell out of most older readers. Why, latter wondered, was it so self-indulgent, so unevenly revealing, so … unedited? Subsequent novel, “You Shall Know Us By Our Velocity,” showed equal nascent talent untroubled by care for narrative, character or thematic development. After numerous post-publication revisions, paperback edition was retitled “Sacrament!” Ditto the stage version Eggers, director Kent Nicholson and S.F. stage company Campo Santo have confabulated. Results remain equal: Gen X snarkiness toys with emotional depth, creating a glass some will judge half-empty, others delightfully full enough.
A fictionalized account of a trip he actually took — as with so many recent debut-splashing authors, we must wait to discover whether Eggers can successfully write about anything beyond his own formative experiences — “Velocity” centered on a Mutt-and-Jeff team traversing the world on an eccentric mission.
Will (Sean San Jose) enlists best bud Hand (Danny Wolohan) to accompany him on a one-week trip. The goal: giving away “some silly money” former was paid “for screwing in a light bulb.” (His silhouetted image doing just that was chosen as a big company’s logo.) The plan: impulse location changes on unlimited-travel plane tickets, giving away a total $32,000 to complete strangers.
Initial ambitions of circling the globe shrink down to a few days in Senegal, more in and around Casablanca and finally a brief sojourn in Estonia.
Beyond the rewards of philanthropy and sheer adventure, this scheme has another semi-acknowledged purpose: To provide cathartic release from grief caused by a mutual friend’s still-fresh death via highway accident, and Will’s loss of his mother some years prior. It is protagonists’ hope — as well as Eggers’ authorial conceit — that this method of madness will somehow lead toward transcendence, a moment at peace with the universe.
Play and book(s) end on just such a note. Whether you find it liltingly profound or a hollow “insert poetic fadeout here” contrivance provides one more way the fans depart from the skeptics. The script (hammered out in collaboration among Eggers, director and company) provides many amusing incidents as well as some pointless and irritating ones.
Characters met on the international road are ably embodied by quick-changing thesps Tina Marie Murray and Michael Torres. The latter particularly scores as a majestically insinuating/sleazy French rap producer slumming in Dakar and as an Estonian hitchhiker who strikes the visiting Yanks as just like somebody they might have met at college.
Most heavy-handed interludes have other figures pontificating — as if their inner thoughts were being ESP’d to discomfited Will — about the First World presumption of gratitude in giving to a needy Third World.
San Jose’s manifestations of arrested-adolescent neurosis and Wolohan’s Will Ferrell-ish bluster make an agreeable comic team. But their riffs too often are interrupted by awkward sequences in which “Old Hand” breaks fourth wall, commenting on the action from his several-years-later p.o.v. amidst depressive meltdown at a rainforest retreat. These segs personify Eggers’ Achilles’ heel: He’s so enchanted by digression that any meaningful throughline disappears.
This writer’s voice works so hard to ingratiate that you might mistake its garrulousness and little plaintive notes for actual candor. Perhaps his protagonists’ intense self-consciousness — every thought or whim merits shared evaluation — is meant to be dissected as the kind that exists to avoid deeper self-awareness. But “Sacrament!’ seems afflicted with the same distracted obliviousness. We glean early on that friends and family members’ deaths are a big deal to the central duo. But we never learn anything about those lost intimates. Will and Hand’s bubble of “quirky” self-absorption is complete, unruffled by tangible outside human relationships. Appropriately, their trip reduces each nation’s populace to hit-and-run tourist curiosities.
Nonetheless, it’s clear “Sacrament!” works for a certain audience just as Eggers’ tomes do; regional theaters aiming to draw in twentysomethings should find it an attractive item. They’d do well to ape Nicholson’s generally sharp, pacey premiere production, which requires scant physical heft. James Faerron’ set is just a few barely graded platforms plus overhead wraparound screen onto which minimalist images, airport departure times and occasional text are projected.