Reviewed by Jeffrey R Smith of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle

The San Francisco Playhouse is presently home to the west coast premiere of THE SUNSET LIMITED by Cormac McCarthy.

To say this show is brilliant would be an understatement.

Were the “little pink man” to watch this show, he would be launched out of his seat like a Nike missile: over his vacated seat, Libra would be visible.

As dark as Cormac McCarthy represents himself with such works as THE ROAD and NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN, this show is an intelligent existential comedy with a clearly expressed redemptive hope for all of us who are self conscious, self absorbed, self delusional and or just swirling in the vortex of selfishness.

This show intimates that there is a path to self transcendence and a possibility of breaking the chains of tyranny clamped on us by our self indulgent egos.

No person, play, movie or comic book can compellingly answer the question: Do we go on living or grease the rails of the express train?

Like Hamlet,, Emmanuel Kant may have covered similar “to be or not be” issues in his CRITIQUE OF PURE REASON but who reads Kant anyway?

The life-death discussion in this play is riveting; it is both morally elevating—assuming there is such a thing as moral high ground—and cogently understandable even to those of us who graduated in the bottom ten percent from Chico State under the five year plan.

The play is as profound as it is simplistic.

There are two characters, no names: one black (played by Carl Lumbly) and one white (played by Charles Dean).

The white guy, a bohemian, has lost his zest for things bohemian or fears that the world has become too bourgeois.

The white guy is a college professor who, despite his tenure and bar stool at the faculty club, has attempted to intercept the Sunset Limited while it was chugging along at 85 miles per hour; the black guy has pulled him from the gleaming gristly tracks.

Aside from the “chimneys of Dachau” there seems to be little to have soured the professor on life other than his own centrifugal reflections and possibly reading too many term papers that were down-loaded by his marginally literate university students.

As for the black guy, he is an ex-con who has opted out of the criminal class much like Samuel L Jackson’s character in PULP FICTION: he dedicates himself to “just walking the earth.”

Much of the dialogue is Socratic; if English is your first, second or third language, the conspicuous richness of the philosophy expressed will be accessible to you: indeed inescapable.

Both Lumbly and Dean carefully chisel their words without over-articulating or sounding pedantic or sophomoric.

Lumbly captures the relaxed selflessness of the truly transcendent being: he is at home with himself and seems to embrace of all humanity: he has a Buddha nature to him.

Dean too has nailed his character: he absolutely exudes anhedonia and dread; like Agent Smith in THE MATRIX, he seems to stagger under the oppressive burden of being, thoughts and existence: the particularized conditioned consciousness.

The set design, at a minimum, is ascetic: grunge urban primitivism.

For a budget busting $61, Bill English, the award winning director and genius set designer, resourcefully bought all the salvaged materials to construct a monastic lathe and stud cell for the black urban mystic.

Tree huggers be advised: no trees were injured in the building of this set.

Whether the “go on living” argument of the black guy prevails or not, remains a mystery.

The pessimism of the professor is clearly a dangerous contagion.

The endangered species of the planet are probably rooting that mankind will ultimately become too intelligent, like the professor, to go on living.

Strange that the adaptive evolutionary process used to ensure our survival; now it leads us to self destruction: perhaps too much cognitive evolution is a bad thing.

The professor seems to have engaged in a life time of confirmation psychology: he has mired himself in a dismal funk: he has read 8000 books, carefully sidestepping the one best seller that might have proved life affirming.

McCarthy, via the professor, alludes to Gibbons and THE DECLINE AND FALL OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE as supporting evidence for his condemnation of Christianity.

Had the Romans been of the professor’s mind, they would have committed suicide and never have known that the barbarians had arrived at the gates.

For additional support for atheism McCarthy invokes the images of the chimneys of Dachau: could a responsive caring creator have allowed the Holocaust?

The Jewish population lost six million innocents; the Christian population certainly had to have lost faith in the existence of a loving, omnipotent interventionalist.

THE SUNSET LIMITED continues through November 6 th.

See it with friends, it is highly provocative: you will want to discuss it afterwards.

For tickets to what will most likely be the best show you will see or have seen in years, surf on over to or call 415-677-9596.