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Rob Ackerman revives Emerson in 'Call Me Waldo'

Is there a place in the consciousness of the average, all-American worker for pure Emersonian idealism — a linchpin in the shaping of American thought and identity?
/ Source: The Associated Press

Is there a place in the consciousness of the average, all-American worker for pure Emersonian idealism — a linchpin in the shaping of American thought and identity?

It's a question Rob Ackerman mulls in his new workmanlike comedy "Call Me Waldo," which drags the 19th century poet and essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson kicking and screaming into the lives of average people fully entrenched in the toil of the daily grind in present-day Long Island.

The off-Broadway play, which opened Wednesday at Abingdon Theatre Company's June Havoc Theatre, examines Emerson's lofty ideals about individualism and life in general, but does so within the context of everyday blue- and white-collar workers.

Ackerman's lighthearted farce weaves together themes relating to personal identity, marriage and parenthood, but is ultimately weighed down by mostly dull humor that is more corny than clever. (The playwright is not above a "Where's Waldo" joke or two.)

Despite a relative shortage of laughs, the show's playfully odd premise and a capable cast under the direction of Margarett Perry make it at the very least thought-provoking and unusual, if not consistently entertaining.

A 40-something electrician, Lee (Matthew Boston), suffers a short circuit in his psychological wiring and begins to involuntarily channel Emerson's spirit, speaking in the voice of the influential orator, uttering hifalutin maxims to no one in particular and causing concern with his wife, Sarah (Rita Rehn), and boss, Gus (Brian Dykstra).

Sarah, a nurse, discusses her husband's strange neurosis with her friend and co-worker Cynthia (Jennifer Dorr White), a doctor. The two theorize that the condition could have been brought on by the stress of almost losing the couple's daughter, Maggie, who nearly died from a respiratory illness.

Strangely, we never meet Maggie during the 90-minute play, or learn much about her other than the fact that she had a recent scrape with death.

The heavyset and domineering Gus is a quintessential brute, stitching together sentences with an arsenal of mindless f-bombs — so many, in fact, that his affinity for cursing seems more forced than natural.

Bellowing orders and occasional insults, Gus is a fitting compliment to Lee's meek disposition and slight frame, giving the men a camaraderie vaguely reminiscent of Ralph Kramden and Ed Norton.

Eventually, Lee's intermittent spells in which he assumes Emerson's personality begin to affect the thinking of the characters around him, encouraging them to take more chances, be more aware and follow their instincts.

"Unless you try something beyond what you've mastered," Lee says as Emerson, "you'll never grow."

For Sarah, that means becoming more engrossed in her gardening and her sex life.

Gus reveals an unexpected desire to make movies — and a decidedly softer side — setting up one of the play's funnier scenes in which he and Lee ham it up for the camera on the site of a lighting installation job.

"Waldo," which runs through March 11, opens the 27th season of The Working Theater, a company dedicated to producing plays "for and about the working men and women of New York."

Ackerman's playwrighting credits also include "Tabletop" and "Disconnect," both also produced by The Working Theater.

His latest play isn't as cohesive or funny as one might hope, but it does score points for individuality.

"To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you into something else," Lee reminds us in Emerson's words, "is a great accomplishment."