James and Jamesy in the Dark is an extraordinary piece of theater that fits no mold but its own. It draws on many sources—or pays homage to them—but it is a unique, thought-provoking delight. Two gifted physical performers (in whiteface and dressed top-to-toe in gray outfits, including gloves) embody the title characters. Eventually, the audience comes to recognize the taller one as Aaron Malkin’s more phlegmatic James and the shorter, more emotionally fragile one as Alastair Knowles’s Jamesy.
As the title suggests, some of the play is performed in the dark, and at such moments the influence of Samuel Beckett comes to mind—especially when they have cryptic, Waiting for Godot–like exchanges:
Why are you here?
It didn’t come. [Pause.]
Are you still here?
The play begins with a sustained metallic chord and then slowly one hears breaths and squeaks from the principals in the darkness. There are pinpoints of white light that flash on and off. Gradually we see the two actors. The men both wear what appear to be Venetian doge’s caps that hold large lampshades framing their whitened faces. Each is crouching over a chair, almost fetally. They become people by degrees—slowly coming upright and discovering voices, initially a collection of sharp whines and catarrh noises. Touch is next (in a moment that echoes Michelangelo’s picture of God and Adam in the Sistine Chapel). They play as children do, with two fingers enacting legs walking. They pretend to walk on each other’s hands and arms. Along the way there’s also sight; as each sees the back of the other and exclaims that he’s never seen anything like it before. When he realizes that he can’t see his own back, Jamesy exclaims: “There’s more to me than meets my eye!”
There’s a bright yellow light upstage that seems to teleport them somewhere—into life, it turns out—and although they try to get it to teleport them back, there’s no response. Meanwhile, though, there are incremental advances in their relationship:
When Jamesy says, “You and I are always at the creation of the next stage and never go there,” James replies, “I guess we are.” Suddenly Knowles’s vulnerable Jamesy realizes something: “Now a we. You and me has become a we, and that has never happened before!”
There are salutes to great classic clowns, but they are subtle. Visually, the black-and-white décor suggests the silent films of Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin. Then there are the words. One sequence, involving the words when, exactly, now and what, becomes a verbal ping-pong akin to Abbott and Costello’s “Who’s on first?” A moment in which James and Jamesy discover each other pays homage to the famous routine in I Love Lucy, in the episode when Harpo Marx spots Lucy, dressed as him, and he and she pretend to see each other as themselves in a mirror.
Although the evening is directed by David MacMurray Smith, who co-wrote it with Knowles and Malkin, there is much that is left to chance. The pair discover the audience—“they”—and with elation realize they are not just a we. Knowles’s Jamesy starts at the front row and touches two fingers to the palms of everyone there, then climbs onto an armrest and touches fingers to people in the second row. Balancing on the armrest, he moves slowly into the audience, exchanging quips with Malkin’s James (standing in the aisle) or observing a mark in the audience who deserves a finger-walk up the entire arm. Another sequence has them inviting audience approbation, then playfully cutting it off. Such improvisation almost invites ad-libbing, and sometimes an unexpected result puts the pair into a bit of a hole.
“Did you just coerce sympathy for me?” Jamesy asked James, who took a pause and was clearly about to say no when suddenly an audience member blurted out, “Yes.” The moment is one of several where the performers couldn’t mask their surprise at the turn of events, but they improvised well.
Although the ending evokes Beckett, it’s full of optimism, befitting the previous 75 minutes of masterly clowning. James says to Jamesy: “We will always be a we.” Then Jamesy adds, indicating the audience, “They’ll be a we when now brings us together.” The pair, starting in darkness and inarticulation, have portrayed all of life, from womb to the end, and they recognize a shared humanity in the theatrical space. Then they disappear—into the next creation.
James and Jamesy in the Dark plays through Oct. 14 at the SoHo Playhouse (15 Vandam St.). Evening performances are at 7 p.m. Wednesday to Sunday; matinees are at 3 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Tickets at $39 may be purchased by calling (212) 691-1555 or by visiting sohoplayhouse.com or jamesandjamesy.com.