The Sunset Limited

Two galvanizing performances illuminate the rich thematic musings in this literate existential parable by Cormac McCarthy ("The Road," "No Country for Old Men"). This Steppenwolf-bred play, brilliantly directed in its L.A. premiere by John Perrin Flynn, brings to mind the enigmatic dramaturgic terrain of Samuel Beckett, though "The Sunset Limited" initially appears to be grounded in a more tangible sphere of human existence. McCarthy sets forth disturbing and thought-provoking ruminations on mortality, religious faith, extreme violence, and our responsibilities to fellow humans.

Into his cramped tenement apartment in Harlem, an African-American ex-con called Black (Tucker Smallwood) brings a Caucasian college professor, White (Ron Bottitta), after averting White's suicide attempt in the subway. Black is trying to prevent White from repeating his self-destructive act, but the still-distraught White, an avowed atheist, is interested only in cutting their conversation short and leaving. Black admits he nearly died following a violent encounter in prison, but he experienced an epiphany that gave him a new perspective on life. As the men debate questions of religious faith, the struggle between their opposing views raises more-complex issues. Their encounter might be more ethereal than it seems. The initially dominant Black has lessons to learn from White, who subtly begins taking charge of their tense interactions. A provocatively ambiguous ending allows for intriguing reflections on the characters and their possible fates.

Smallwood offers a compelling portrait of a man scarred by life's harsh blows who believes he has found a path to spiritual salvation, which he wants to share with others. At times frightening, at others amusing and reassuring, Smallwood's beautifully nuanced characterization is mesmerizing. Bottitta's depiction of White's journey is equally layered and deeply affecting, showing us the character's desperation and despondency, as well as his resignation to what he considers inevitable. These actors command our attention for two uninterrupted hours with their skillfully calibrated interplay and the intelligence they bring to these challenging roles. Flynn's direction is taut and insightful, and he receives first-rate support from his design collaborators (set designer Stephanie Kerley Schwartz, costume designer Lauren Tyler, lighting designer Dan Weingarten, and sound designer Joseph Slawinski), who enhance the unnerving mood with their stark but arresting contributions.

Presented by Rogue Machine at Theatre/Theater, 5041 W. Pico Blvd., L.A. Nov. 6–Dec. 19. Thu.–Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 5 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m. (323) 960-4424 or