Friday, May 25, 2012

'Title and Deed': Attention Must Be Paid

Conor Lovett stars in "Title and Deed."
Photo by Ross Costigan

Beckett is dead.  Long live Beckett.

That is one of the first thoughts that crossed my mind while watching Title and Deed, the new theater piece by Will Eno being performed at the Signature Theatre’s intimate Alice Griffin Jewel Box with sweet, soulful quirkiness by Irish actor Conor Lovett.

Imagine a new version of Waiting for Godot, with Didi wandering alone, separated from his Gogo (or vice versa), perhaps for all of eternity.  A sad image, yet one that Mr. Lovett most thoroughly embodies, even when coming out with some deliciously funny lines about home, family, love, life, and death. 

I don’t know whether it was the space or the acting, but in more than a half century of theater-going, I have never had such a strong feeling of being so personally addressed by the person on stage. 

It’s not that I felt like the song performed most famously by Roberta Flack—Killing Me Softly.  Mr. Lovett was not “strumming my pain with his fingers” or “singing my life with his words.”  But he looked his audience directly in the eye as he spoke, so that I felt more like a passenger on an airplane, buttonholed by a loquacious seatmate for the entire flight.  Being on the receiving end, you have the choice of zoning out or paying close attention. 

I recommend the latter, but I have to say that view was not universally shared with the audience at the performance I attended.  I have never been so acutely aware of ambient audience noise, which felt terribly intrusive.  Someone’s hearing aid kept squealing feedback; someone in the first row blew his nose loudly; someone behind me started snoring. 

Mr. Lovett took it all in, his eyes darting from miscreant to miscreant, with a silent reprimand.   For my part, I scrunched into my seat and stayed as still as possible, trying to muffle even the sound of my pen taking notes on my program.

Needless to say, Title and Deed is not for everyone.  It is a 70-minute monologue that is as much about the inner workings of the writer’s mind as it is about the teller of the tale.  One of the first things Mr. Lovett says is, “don’t hate me, if you wouldn’t mind.”  That’s a writer’s plaint if there ever was one. 

The story doesn’t so much unfold as shake out, bit by bit, non sequitur followed by tangential thought, always with a plea for our indulgence.  “We should thank our stars for the listeners of the world,” says Mr. Lovett.  Hint. Hint.      

The character Mr. Lovett portrays, called—rather preciously—“Man,” is a lost soul, a wanderer far from a home that, as we gradually learn, provided him with little comfort or joy.  “My parents taught me the difference between right and…left,” he says by way of explanation.  Later, in a rare moment of strong emotion, he slaps his leg angrily and repeatedly with a stick he has been carrying, a self-imposed flashback. 

And so it goes.  We learn that Man has come to our place, unsure of how to answer the question posed by the Customs and Immigration clerk:  “Business or pleasure?”  We learn about his time with Lauren, with whom he split (“I went my separate ways”), and with Lisa, with whom he would have wanted a longer relationship. 

More than anything, we are left, in the end, with a tale of loneliness.  It is no wonder that Man has latched onto us for the 70 minutes he has been given to do so—or that he struggles at times to find his voice.  We may feel a captive audience, but for Man, we are a momentary oasis in a lifetime of solitary wandering that will recommence as soon as we depart.

And when it is over, if you have been paying attention, you will leave the theater with a sense of admiration for both the writer and the performer, as well as for Judy Hegarty Lovett, who has directed her husband with a deft hand.  It is also possible you may not feel you have gotten your money’s worth, for this is no play but rather a haunting experience, communion with a ghost.  

Go home and be appreciative.

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