The Life and Sort of Death of Eric Argyle, currently playing at 59E59 Theaters as part of the 1st Irish Festival, is a much more developed work than one might expect from a festival production. But then, the Irish have always been especially good at telling their stories — especially the sad ones — and the Eric Argyle team has already spent a year touring their show and winning prizes across the pond.
Eric Argyle is a surreal story that follows a man (Eric, played by Dave McEntegart) in the first few hours following his death by pedestrian/car accident. Eric finds himself in the custody of two rather no-nonsense women (actresses Erica Murray and Katie Lyons) who force him, with little to no explanation, to witness some of his life's most painful moments. The tale unfolds in the format of a novel — prologue, chapter headings, occasional sections read aloud — as the audience is carried along with Eric while he tries to find out what exactly is happening to him and why.
The play's sizable cast, many of whom play at least two characters, are all great talents who are clearly invested in their show. They interpret the beautiful and clever text with a grace that comes from familiarity. McEntegart in particular seems to simply be his character. Much of Eric's story is set up, via the prologue, before McEntegart ever enters the stage, and even once he's there, Eric spends much of the play witnessing his life rather than living it. McEntegart embodies his character's reality without fanfare but with complete believability.
The text itself occasionally rides its own cleverness into overwritten territory, but playwright Ross Dungan actually deserves commendation for avoiding this trap more often than not. The play is delightfully language-heavy with an intelligently crafted plot. It would have been easy for such a talented playwright to fall into showing off rather than reining in his talents for the good of his audience. The result is a narrative that is easy to follow while remaining interesting and mysterious. In some ways, the play works almost like a mystery novel.
Each of the specific design elements of The Life and Sort of Death of Eric Argyle, overseen by director Dan Herd, add specifically to the play's overall tragicomic vibe as well as the its functionality. Probably due to its nomadic, fringe-festival background, the show uses almost no grid lighting. Instead, the characters are lit by more traditional illuminations sources, such as a myriad of hanging lamps that cover the ceiling, a flashlight, and a desk lamp. The result is imperfect viewing but a completely natural feel. Likewise, most if not all of the sound design and music take place onstage, with the unmiked actors playing their own music on camouflaged onstage instruments. Herd's direction also smoothly and naturally slides between the scenes that take place in Eric's afterlife and those from his childhood and early adulthood. Such transitions are particularly impressive because each begins framed by Eric and his questioners as they watch his past unfold. But as the vignettes carry on, the events of the afterlife fade into the background as those of Eric's life take center stage.
The sad details of Eric Argyle's mostly normal life are what give this play its resonance. Like many an Irish playwright before him, Dungan is able to tap into the essence of living, highlighting existence's humor as well as its tragedy. On the way to an evening performance of The Life and Sort of Death of Eric Argyle, you might do well to track down the nearest Irish pub, because nothing would pair so well with this play as a good cry into your beer.