The Sunset Limited review – Cormac McCarthy two-hander is all talk

There is a flagrantly anti-theatrical quality to Cormac McCarthy’s 2006 play The Sunset Limited. It unfolds as a conversation on faith and faithlessness between two men: one believes in Jesus, the other in nothingness.

There is no plot beyond their Socratic exchanges, and even names are replaced by epithets denoting skin colour. Black, a self-appointed citizen saviour, intercepts the attempted suicide of White in a New York subway and subsequently attempts to talk him round to valuing his life. White stays depressed and defensive: “Who appointed you my guardian angel?” As they sit down in Black’s tenement block to thrash it out, they appear – like many of McCarthy’s men – to be existential cowboys as they warm up beans on Black’s campsite stove, drink coffee from metal cups and chew the cud about God and ontology.

There is, within this dynamic, the potential for the kind of emotionally charged clashes and complicated intimacies found between Sam Shepard’s men, facing off in sitting rooms or secluded space. But Black and White do not crack open or combust. They just sip coffee and carry on talking.

While its promise of unconventional theatre of the mind is bold, The Sunset Limited stays belligerently anti-dramatic. The relationship between the men does not deepen though they are both carrying trauma, and their tensions do not develop or escalate. Their back-stories are tantalising but only touched upon, and the tales they tell do not rouse any significant emotion. Their arguments begin to sound repetitive too. The play sometimes bears the subtitle “a novel in dramatic form”, but this production comes to feel like a treatise in dramatic form.

Gary Beadle and Jasper Britton put in masterful performances all the same, and there is chemistry between them as they eke out the humour in their lines. Britton exudes moroseness and dry wit while Beadle is charismatic, with a machine-gun rhythm to his words. Terry Johnson’s direction also works hard to lift the play out of stasis, and for a while it feels animated by sound effects and the men’s movement.

But the play – for all its success as a film starring Samuel L Jackson and Tommy Lee Jones – is limited in ways that this production cannot transcend. The most notable, perhaps, is its characterisation. Black and White are overloaded with racial stereotypes and underdrawn at the same time. Black is an ex-convict with a limited education who has found Jesus in jail and now peddles his faith with the zeal of a doorstep preacher; White is a wealthy, articulate, suicidal New York professor who sneers at Black’s “horrible” apartment and his mission to save the souls of “junkies and crackheads”.

This imbalance of power gives their intellectual jousting an imbalance, too. White’s eloquent argument for a godless universe inevitably has the advantage over Black’s simpler pleas to believe in the Bible, so it is not a surprise that, even as Black tries to talk White off the ledge, he unwittingly walks on to it himself.