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Theater review: ‘The Sunset Limited’ at Theatre Theater

November 11, 2010 |  1:00 pm

SunsetlimitedA couple of guys in a dingy room talking about the meaning of existence might not sound like the stuff of edge-of-your-seat drama, but leave it to Cormac McCarthy (“The Road,” “No Country for Old Men”) to invest a faith-versus-reason debate with life or death consequences in his taut 2006 two-hander, “The Sunset Limited.” 

A superb staging by Rogue Machine’s John Perrin Flynn renders McCarthy’s distinctively spare, evocative dialog with the agility of a fencing match: “You see everything in black and white.” — “It is black and white.” — “I suppose that makes the world easier to understand.” — “You might be surprised about how little time I spend trying to understand the world.”

The ironies are densely packed in these terse exchanges. Black and White are in fact the unnamed sparring opponent’s only scripted monikers, encompassing their respective skin color, their social status and their philosophical outlooks. White (Ron Bottitta) is a professor, a jaded atheist who lives in a world of abstract conceptualization; Black (Tucker Smallwood), an ex-con turned devout Christian, is all about practical street smarts, concrete experience and rescuing others (even those he may not like). 

Despite the seemingly polarized setup, McCarthy has crafted a work of supple nuance and shifting sympathies. Chance brought these men together on a subway platform when Black rescued White from an attempted suicide leap. Now they sit in Black’s Harlem tenement apartment, locked in a high-stakes intervention.

McCarthy’s writing combines a pitch-perfect ear for naturalistic speech  with a poet’s eloquent efficiency, particularly in Black, who steers most of the discussion in lively, often hilarious ghetto dialect. Black’s religious faith is refreshingly neither naive nor narrow-minded, and Smallwood’s masterful performance radiates dignity, authority and generosity of spirit as Black wheedles, browbeats and plies White with (literal) soul food in an attempt to persuade him to go on living. 

Bottitta’s more articulate White convincingly seethes with so much rage and disillusionment at the failure of higher learning, art and culture to redeem evil that he craves nothingness. 

The modern urban setting and lack of onstage action may seem a departure of sorts from McCarthy’s usual territory. But with so much at stake in whether White can recognize the unexpected kind of redemption embodied in an unsophisticated reformed criminal, the electrifying dialogue still keeps us on the edge of our seats. What more could you ask for?

–- Philip Brandes

“The Sunset Limited,” Theatre Theater, 5041 Pico Blvd., Los Angeles. 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 7 p.m. Sundays. Ends December 19. $25. (323) 960-4424 or Running time: 2 hours.

Photo: Ron Bottitta and Tucker Smallwood. Credit: John P. Flynn.