Echoes of Beckett in Will Arbery’s ‘Evanston’

Under the taut direction of Danya Taymor, who also collaborated with Arbery on ‘Heroes of the Fourth Turning,’ the actors deftly mine the bleak humor and surreal naturalism of the dialogue in ‘Evanston Salt Costs Climbing.’

Monique Carboni
Ken Leung and Jeb Kreager in ‘Evanston Salt Costs Climbing.’ Monique Carboni

In the four years since his play “Evanston Salt Costs Climbing” was first produced, Will Arbery, who’s in his early 30s, has garnered attention and praise for work ranging from the Pulitzer finalist “Heroes of the Fourth Turning” to the wickedly entertaining HBO series “Succession,” which has enlisted Mr. Arbery as an executive consultant.

As a playwright, Mr. Arbery, like the slightly older Samuel D. Hunter, writes wittily and humanely about the kind of Americans fashionable young scribes often disdain or ignore — from the conservative Catholics in “Heroes” to the woman with Down syndrome in his more recent “Corsicana” — perhaps due in part to a simple lack of interaction with such people. (Mr. Arbery has a sister with Down syndrome, and his parents are Catholic academics.)

In “Evanston,” now finally having its New York premiere, the characters include a pair of truck drivers who make their living salting the roads of the titular college town in Illinois, where increasingly early and harsh winters are challenging both the workers and their employers. Peter, who’s in his 40s, is further saddled with a morose nature; even the sight of his young daughter depresses him, because “it just seems like she’s gonna become one of those chubby women who work at like a library or a church.”

Basil, who’s about a decade older and a Greek immigrant, seems sunnier and empathetic, but he’s also haunted — by dreams that hint at past trauma and possibly a guilty conscience. In scenes set a year apart, spanning 2014-2016, the two suggest a blue-collar Vladimir and Estragon at times, returning to the same themes and jokes and laments in language that seems at once colloquial and absurd.

Unlike Beckett’s duo, though, Peter and Basil are eventually forced to confront change. Jane Maiworm, the public official whom both men report to — and whom Basil is sleeping with — has been doing research into de-icing technology that could make environmental protection more efficient, but would also threaten the truckers’ jobs.

As played by a sweetly quirky Quincy Tyler Bernstine, Maiworm — she’s referred to by her surname — is a nervous but disciplined woman with an outsize heart. Her hero is Jane Jacobs, the journalist and activist who famously took on urban planner Robert Moses as he aimed to restructure Greenwich Village.

Maiworm lives with her daughter, Jane Jr., a young woman who seems relentlessly, almost comically overwhelmed. “There’s something under everything and it’s making us all want to die,” she tells her mother, giving a clear voice to the sense of existential dread that bubbles just beneath the surface for all of the characters. “It’s pushing out from under everything and it’s telling us to die and you can’t leave me alone with it.”

Under the taut direction of Danya Taymor, who also collaborated with Mr. Arbery on “Heroes,” the actors deftly mine the bleak humor and surreal naturalism of the dialogue. Jeb Kreager and Ken Leung evince the tension and the camaraderie between, respectively, Peter and Basil, and Rachel Sachnoff’s Jane Jr. is both droll and poignant as she segues from daydreaming about marrying a famous singer to contemplating suicide, as Peter does also.

The subject of death, or at least the fragility of life — for people, and in nature generally — hangs over “Evanston” throughout; Matt Saunders’s spare, two-level set suggests a doll house in which the characters move between represented spaces, from a bedroom to the salt dome to the front of a truck, like toys that never know if or when they’ll be discarded. 

The final line is a question: “Are you okay?” It’s directed at the audience as much as anyone in the play, with a non-judgmental concern that’s one of the qualities that makes Mr. Arbery a writer worth rooting for.

Correction: Will Arbery is the name of the playwright. The name was misspelled in an earlier version.

The New York Sun

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