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This weekend I had the opportunity to see what has been billed as Dave Eggers' first play. It's called Sacrament!, and although it's based on Eggers' book You Shall Know Our Velocity it was mostly adapted by Kent Nicholson and the Campo Santo theater group in San Francisco.

As editor and creator of McSweeney's, Eggers has injected a great deal of vigor into the literary world, but I've always preferred his own writing in small doses. In advance of each of his books — A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius and You Shall Know Our VelocityThe New Yorker published excerpts that I enjoyed more than the books themselves, in both cases. His self-conscious style and cute phrasing work in a short story or essay but quickly grow old in a novel or memoir.

So I was curious about what Velocity would be like when compressed into a two-act play, and while I almost missed it, catching the next-to-last performance of a month-long run that had already been extended, I'm pleased to report that it was really good. The book follows two young men who embark on a harebrained scheme to travel around the world in one week and give away $38,000 to random strangers, and when it's boiled down to little more than banter and misgivings, it's pretty close to brilliant. The cast — headed by Sean San José and Danny Wolohan — was shockingly good, especially given the $9-15 ticket price for an offbeat play in a low-key art space. (I've been trying to see more plays in recent years, and while I'm no expert on such things, I can say that when I compare this least expensive of recent plays with the most expensive, a production of a Mamet play on London's west end starring two Hollywood actors, these guys at Campo Santo win, hands down.)

When reduced to bits of dialogue, Eggers' story resembles a Richard Linklater movie, like Waking Life, Before Sunrise, or Before Sunset, full of ideas and theories, questions and philosophy, humor and grief, the ethics of philanthropy and the importance of place. I never saw this in the book itself, so the play was a revelation. Eggers tries to unite his mishmash of attitudes and theories by explaining their connections where Linklater is more likely to let them accumulate like poetry; I prefer Linklater's approach, really. It's a free-form smattering of ideas hung on a simple, humanist spine, grand, provocative world views spoken just to pass the time or engage the listener, which is enough because she's a pretty girl you met on the train.

Sacrament! carries over a few other things that I didn't like about the novel, such as clunky temporal shifts that make the story feel like a cross-cut TV show. The central narrative is repeatedly interrupted by a tedious frame tale and overly dramatic internal dialogs that revolve around the recent death of a friend, and while Eggers tinkers with time and tries to make you question the narrator, these devices ultimately feel like games that get in the way of the more genuine notes of wonder about the world and the difficulty of giving away money. The guys find that it's a lot harder to give the money away than they expected, not because they don't want to do it but because they want to do it right, and they're not sure what that means.

The play is funny, and I wonder if it has planted the idea in Eggers' head to write one from scratch? The program included a note from Eggers in which he says he "never thought for a second, ever, about writing a play," but that these folks at Campo Santo approached him about using his text and he couldn't be happier with the result.

I can't say the play drastically changes my opinion of Eggers. At two hours, it counts as a "small dose," which is probably one reason I enjoyed it. But I didn't realize — or didn't remember, since I read it a year or so ago — how many thought provoking ideas are in the book, a failing that's probably just as much my own as a lazy reader as it is the author's.

Posted by davis | Link