University Wits

The Beckettian equation
By James Brooke-Smith

With the arrival in the city of two new Off-Broadway Beckett productions, we may feel disposed to pose the same question as the hapless servant Clov does in Endgame—"What is there to keep me here?" Long after the passing of Endgame's contemporary moment, with its mid-century preoccupations of nuclear threat and existential malaise, producers and audiences alike continue to be drawn to Beckett's bleak vision of a world on the edge of extinction. Much of the work's persistent appeal lies in its ability to speak beyond its own time to something universal in all human experience, and yet the response of Clov's needy master Hamm points to another essential element in the Beckettian equation—"the dialogue." The peculiar pleasure of Beckett's work lies in the inseparability of his stark accounts of human existence from the pristine economy of their language. As James Joyce's heir and protégé, Beckett pares away the excesses of the master's style to leave a lean diction and skeletal syntax that nevertheless range far and wide in the compass of their theme.

Alvin Epstein and Kathryn Grody in Endgame
photo: Carol Rosegg
Alvin Epstein and Kathryn Grody in Endgame

Details

Endgame
By Samuel Beckett
Irish Repertory Theatre
132 West 22nd Street
212.727.2737
Through April 10

Happy Days
By Samuel Beckett
Classic Stage Company
Closed

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    imageThis makes it an especial pity that some of the space and silence that lend Beckett's words their particular beauty gets lost in Charlotte Moore's otherwise excellent production of Endgame. For the most part this is an intelligent and convincing rendering, which articulates the broad register of the play's slapstick pathos. Both Tony Roberts as Hamm and Adam Heller as Clov bring their respective characters to life with clarity and force. However, at times it is the very force of the production that threatens to obscure the empty spaces of Beckett's text. Clov's jerky gait and comic fumblings can feel rushed rather than pathetic. And many of the exchanges between him and his master sacrifice resonant depth in favor of snappy repartee. For a play so saturated in desiccated entropy, this production has a lot of energy. Oddly enough, it is when the two main characters speak alone that their delivery allows the language the time and space it needs to breathe. In these instances this production reaches its genuine peaks. And peaks they are. Despite some minor reservations over the refinements of Beckettian diction, there is much to recommend the Irish Repertory Theatre's Endgame. Not least of all, the dialogue.

    James Brooke-Smith is a first year Ph.D. student in NYU's graduate English department image


    Surviving happiness
    By Elizabeth Lawler

    imageThe sound of an explosion opens the Worth Street Theater's production of Beckett's Happy Days, hinting at some recent Armageddon. Winnie (Lea DeLaria) is buried up to her waist in rubble. She springs into action at the trill of a bell, throwing herself into the daily rituals that order her existence—prayer, tooth brushing, nail filing, etc. As a supplement to these activities, she raps and riffs her way through what "will have been a happy day." Her chatter cheerfully fills the silence, though she occasionally loses her momentum and allows "the sadness to creep in." To ensure that she is not merely speaking to herself, she occasionally checks in with her husband, Willie (David Greenspan), who makes sporadic appearances, grunting into view behind her. He reads the paper, squeaks out occasional responses to her badgering, and emits primal and constipated groans with every move. Winnie accepts the limitations of this relationship, content with the smallest sign of life or attention from her quasi-vegetal companion. Director Jeff Cohen has re-imagined this piece as a Magritte painting come to life—a lunatic Technicolor world, with undertones of barbarity. Winnie is like an apocalyptic bride with a skirt of debris and red parasol held defiantly aloft.

    Winnie's body is failing and her world is collapsing. By the second act, she'll be buried up to her neck. Yet she resourcefully meets her advancing suffocation with the tools at her disposal: nostalgic reminiscing and repeated refrains that give the illusion of normalcy. DeLaria sifts events out of this verbal flood by modulating her tone and rhythm, underscoring moments of drama with the tilt of her head and pitch of her voice. It's a hammy approach, but her theatrically pumps things up.

    In the absence of a traditional plot, it's hard to ward off the mania for compulsive interpretation. How else do you wrap your head around these images? With such microscopic scrutiny, every tiny gesture seems imbued with momentous significance. But trying to decode Beckett is like chasing your own tail, futile and exhausting at best. It's simplest to experience the text the way DeLaria's Winnie does—transported by the musicality and sonority of her own voice.

    The experience of time is Beckett's true subject. We are simultaneously powerless and lulled by its passage. We survive these "happy" days in the same way that DeLaria's Winnie survives them—with grim patience underscored by rising panic.

    Elizabeth Lawler is a student in Brooklyn College's M.F.A. program in Dramaturgy and Theater Criticism image


    A day at the beach, a night in the Bronx
    By Kirsten Bowen

    imageAt Classic Stage Company, the sun shines bright over Lea DeLaria's Winnie in Samuel Beckett's Happy Days. Decked out in a blond mop of a wig, faded green camisole, and jaunty red parasol, Winnie seems ready for a day at the beach. But cement blocks litter this beach, and when DeLaria declares it to be a "happy day" sarcasm colors her voice. DeLaria, a stand-up comic and musical theater actor, gives us a music hall Winnie—a wisecracker who employs odd accents, decibels, and intonations. This aggressive vaudeville style often subverts what little plot Beckett concocted.

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