The spirit of poet Ralph Waldo Emerson inhabits a blue-collar joe in the comedy Call Me Waldo
When most of us think of American philosopher and poet Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1883), if we think of him at all, we remember a series of sober-sided essays, such as “Nature,” “American Scholar” and “Self Reliance,” as assigned readings in sophomore year. The name of his star pupil, Henry David Thoreau, the enemy of consumerism and an incipient environmentalist, comes up more often. Emerson was an enormously prolific thinker, however, and playwright Rob Ackerman argues that if we took seriously even some of his ideas we would find them electrifying, even giving spark to our sex lives. In his world premiere comedy Call Me Waldo, now at Ithaca’s Kitchen Theatre Company, Emerson comes alive when his spirit is channeled though the body of a working stiff in a hard hat named Lee Fountain.David Arsenault’s set looks like a work site, with exposed unfinished lumber and the back of a pickup truck. The scene is Bethpage, Long Island, not far from Levittown. Two electricians banter back and forth on the value of sweet sprinkles atop doughnuts as they get to work. Burlier, more voluble Gus Sakellariadis (Brian Dykstra) is the rougher of the two. If he completes a 10-word sentence it will contain a minimum of three F-bombs. Slighter, darker Lee Fountain (Matthew Boston) is the softer-spoken assistant electrician.
Ackerman may have had models in life or even some lofty literary antecedents, but the duo come off a bit like Ralph Kramden and Ed Norton facing midlife doldrums. A few minutes into the first scene, without any signal or cue, Lee jumps back and begins to speak in a deeper baritone with an aristocratic New England voice. The message is something about opening the grave of a beloved and recently deceased wife.
More messages will follow, some with more substance, but some with further references to the wife’s grave. Although Gus affects to ignore these outbursts, Lee shares some of the emerging sentiments with him, and also with his wife Sarah (Rita Rehn), a nurse. Although this is hardly a well-known personal detail on Emerson’s life, Sarah checks into it—on Google, of course—and determines that Emerson did suffer such grief. She puts this together with some other data, i.e. that Lee is a remote descendant of Emerson, and as such has inherited a quality bound edition of the great man’s complete works.
This is enough, even without consulting an exorcist, for Sarah to believe the voice Lee is delivering is bona fide. Before this Sarah had spoken of God in the rhetoric of an evangelical Christian, people inclined to reject Emerson’s philosophy of finding the divine within the self. Nonetheless, she quickly absorbs the contents of a complete volume of Emerson and is spelling out in detail some of Lee-as-Waldo’s insights, which tend toward the cryptic. Like, “To have a friend is to be one.”
Before this coming together, Lee and Sarah had operated on different planes, communicating poorly with one another. In one of director Margarett Perry’s best-handled scenes Lee chats with Sarah while he folds the laundry, ostensibly helping her with a domestic chore. Distracted by the sound of his own voice, he performs the simplest tasks badly, folding the clothes wrong so that she has to pick them up and refold them correctly, while he remains oblivious to all that is happening right in front it him.
Eventually we sense attention moving away from the two guys and focusing instead on Sarah’s frenzied reactions, some in soliloquy. A pretty, round-faced brunette, Rehn gets much mileage from lines that look pretty modest when copied into a reviewer’s notebook. She gains a sparring partner in Cynthia Allen (Jennifer Dorr White), a doctor in a white lab coat, who is also a cool, elegant redhead and unmarried. Cynthia is at first dismissive of this magical transformation of the transcendentalist, put in medical jargon. But she is taken, partly because of Sarah’s reports of new excitement in her and Lee’s private life, which we have seen acted out on stage (rated PG-13). She describes the new Lee as a bear, but one who likes blueberries. Cynthia reacts strongly to the bear metaphor, and we immediately recall that the very ursine Gus is also without mate.
As Call Me Waldo is not a graduate seminar on Emerson’s 12-volume output, Ackerman wreaks redirection of all four characters’ lives with relatively few pronouncements. One is the transcendental belief that the divine is found within, an idea later very attractive to Friedrich Nietzsche, who is quoted extensively from Emerson. Second is appreciating the wonder of the everyday. The quote is not in the play, but Emerson did say that if the stars came out but once a year they would be cause for wild celebration. Third is to take pride and joy in what you do. The men, neither Jewish, are working on a well-designed synagogue, whose beauty they hail in triumph in the final scene.
Different characters give speeches on Emerson’s prominence, reflecting playwright Ackerman’s legwork, but they need not. Along with being required reading, Emerson has always been read and his sentiments pop up in American literature. In John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, the renegade preacher Jim Casy (played by John Carradine in the 1940 movie) constantly gives sermons purely Emersonian.
Such influence is not without controversy. Last December a writer named Benjamin Anastas in the Sunday New York
Times Magazine denounced Emerson’s self-centerdness as “high-flown pap,” responsible for such American delusions as birtherism, climate change denialism and Joel Osteen’s slick but empty evangelicalism. Sixty-three of Emerson’s loyal admirers wrote in to denounce Anastas.
Call Me Waldo is making its world premiere at Ithaca’s Kitchen Theatre, but the script was first heard at New York City’s Lark Play Development Center in 2009, where there were three rather than two women. Cast members Brian Dykstra, Matthew Boston and Rita Rehn, all of whom had many happy experiences at the Kitchen, signed on early. And that trio has been directed several times by Margarett Perry, memorable for such saucy hits as Marriage Minuet (2007). They are a perfectly performing team. The one newcomer, Jennifer Dorr White as Dr. Allen, doesn’t talk like a natural comedienne, but with Perry’s guiding hand always gets the spark.
The day job for playwright Rob Ackerman is serving as prop master for the Saturday Night Live film unit. That means he is a member of the electricians’ union where he has come to know as many skilled technicians as he does comedians. No kid, born in 1958, he has been writing plays constantly. His Origin of the Species was turned into an Amada Peet movie (1998), and his Tabletop (2001) won a Drama Desk Award.
Kitchen’s version of Call Me Waldo is already booked for a
February off-Broadway opening at the June Havoc Theatre on West 36th
Street in Manhattan, in a production mounted by the Working Theater
professional troupe, dedicated to stage works focusing on working
people. We saw it first here.
This production runs through Feb. 5. See Times Table for information.