The production begins when The Narrator enters the stage to accompanying music, and reads from a book: “1:01 am: Eric Argyle was notably surprised when, rather unexpectedly, his eyes opened again.” Initially, I thought that the piece was a short story woven into a play, similar to what The Elevator Repair Service did with The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald at The Public Theatre last year: in other words, a play constructed from a longer fictional work, using scenes to demonstrate the action. Not so.
The Life and Sort of Death of Eric Argyle by Ross Dungan has no fictional framework from which the play was formed. It is an original, an innovative play that involves narration by various actors incorporating illustrative “live” scenes. Dungan has evolved an extremely clever construct. It enhances the play’s themes. It also intensifies the revelatory buildup and emotional impact by the play’s end.
From the moment Eric Argyle steps onstage in living form out of the words of narration, the play begins to sing and The Life and Sort of Death of Eric Argyle directed by Dan Herd at 59E59 begins to live. The irony is that 58-year-old Eric Argyle has just died.
Dungan’s play unfolds gradually, mingling the present with the past, the real with the fantastic in scenes revolving around a decision that a “present” Eric Argyle has to make during a postmortem, after he has been killed in a car accident. What ethereal beings conduct the postmortem, and what is the nature of Argyle’s condition (is he alive, dead, conscious, unconscious?) in the afterlife remain immaterial. What matters is that Argyle is given a second chance to correct a misapprehension and deal with a loose thread that he was incapable of tying up in life. To gain that chance and make a certain decision which will cause a chain of events impacting others’ lives for the better, the “examiners” have Eric view pertinent turning points in his past. Eventually, they bring him to the crucial moment when he must make his decision.
The playwright uses a series of flashbacks, pivotal scenes examining key moments in Eric’s childhood and early adulthood. Actors portray the younger Eric (James Murphy) and those who significantly influenced his life, including Gillian (a wistful Siobhan Cullen), whom he has always loved but was unable to express his love for. This becomes especially poignant when we discover that Gillian married his best friend, Craig (Manus Halligan), though she had always thought about Eric. And it becomes particularly unnerving when the “examiners” uncover the scene when Argyle has the chance to finally act on his love for her after Craig has died, but he doesn’t.
Juxtaposed with the flashbacks, Dungan includes the real-time present scenes, as the 58-year-old Argyle (a competently nebbishy David McEntegart) wrangles with the Moderator (aptly business-like and determined Katie Lyons), and other examiners (Julia, portrayed by Erica Murray), as they review significant scenes from his past and point out his specific reactions. Interwoven into the present are scenes of Argyle’s funeral. There are only two mourners at his grave, Mr. Aldershot, Eric’s uncle (a forceful and abrupt Davey Kelleher), and Mr. Downey (a kindly Halligan), his boss. They wait for others to come and pay their respects. From their ongoing dialogue, the playwright brings us to the conclusion that Argyle’s life made little difference or impact on the lives of others, for it appears that no one else will come. Dungan’s writing in these scenes is subtly brilliant, strengthening the play’s power at the end.
Also in the present are ancillary scenes involving Jessica Bolger (Karen Sheridan), a young woman with no apparent connection to Argyle. Gradually, Dungan reveals she is an important catalyst in making possible Argyle’s second-chance decision. Her generous actions serve as the lynchpin reconciling Argyle’s insignificant life of unrequited everything, to one that is meaningful and has great power. Though Argyle will never see or understand how he has made a difference, nor how Jessica Bolger has effected this with her great act of kindness, he has a sense that his session with the “examiners” has been of some merit.
Dungan’s play under Dan Herd’s direction is lifted to the extraordinary, guided by the moment-to-moment energy of this superbly talented cast. The production is sneaky, compelling the audience to the next bend and turn in the life of Eric Argyle, hooking our emotions so that it is impossible to extract ourselves from the import of what is coming at the end. It is nothing short of what we feel about our own lives. The regrets, the missed moments, the should-have-dones, the might-have-saids which, after all, might not matter because there are unseen forces at work. And though we will not be present for our own funerals, we will have made an impact. To what extent is up to us.
Cast: Siobhan Cullen (Gillian), Manus Halligan (Mr. Downey/Craig), Davey Kelleher (Mr. Aldershot), Katie Lyons (Moderator), David McEntegart (Eric Argyle), James Murphy (Young Eric/Sam) Erica Murray (Julia/Imelda/Ms. Quillmore) Karen Sheridan (Jessica Bolger/Receptionist).
The Life and Sort of Death of Eric Argyle runs through September 29 at 59E59.