Despite juicy perfs from Steppenwolf thesps Austin Pendleton and Freeman Coffey, this inert two-hander from prize-winning novelist Cormac McCarthy (“All the Pretty Horses”) remains glued to the printed page. Neglecting drama for literary eloquence, “The Sunset Limited” provides a platform for conflicting ideological views of an academic atheist and the Christian Samaritan who saves him from committing suicide. But while the two men (identified only by their skin color) air their existential beliefs at length, few personal confidences are exchanged and their exhausting debate ends in a stalemate, with neither having learned a thing from the other.
Cowering within his frail frame and looking out from haunted eyes, Pendleton is pathetically persuasive as a weedy college professor who woke up that morning and chose to observe his birthday by throwing himself in front of a New York subway train.
“Maybe birthdays are dangerous,” he acknowledges to his rescuer. “Like Christmas. Ornaments hanging from the trees, wreaths from the doors and bodies from the steampipes all over America.”
White, as he is identified, is given plenty of such provocative speeches to illustrate the depth of his atheist’s despair about life and its empty aftermath. But he throws up these flashes of wit as an intellectual smokescreen, using them to express his views about life on Earth — “a horrible place full of horrible people” — without revealing anything about the specifics of his own life or the pressures that made him choose to end it.
His rescuer, identified as Black, is less educated but far more articulate. He, too, is pretty stingy with personal details — aside from the key piece of information that he found God while serving time for murder. In Coffey’s strong and forthright performance, Black would have us believe that he is as simple a man as he seems, a born-again Christian who saved White’s miserable life and now feels duty-bound to rescue his lost soul. But there’s a deeper intelligence behind those innocent eyes, and White, to his credit, is keen enough to see it.
The claustrophobic nature of their metaphysical debate is defined by the apartment kitchen in Harlem, where Black has taken White in the hope of converting him. Although neat and relatively clean, it couldn’t be tinier or more depressing in Scott Neale’s deliberately dreary rendering. But like the argument that takes place at the kitchen table, it could use a lot more light — if only as a pretense of illumination.
Sheldon Patinkin’s static direction only underlines the point that neither man is going to move from his initial argument. That leaves it all up to the actors to suggest that this debate is going somewhere.
Coffey finds something dynamic to play by digging into Black’s behavior, working with broad gestures and an earnest delivery to simultaneously conceal and reveal the subtle way his mind actually works. Pendleton takes a different tack, using White’s formidable intelligence to probe Black’s mind and analyze his arguments.
But while the thesps’ efforts are all very interesting for students of fine acting to follow, they don’t take the curse off a talky play that goes nowhere and signifies far less than it thinks it does.