The Worth Street Theater Company’s production of Beckett’s Happy Days plays out like a contest between two aesthetics, even two worldviews. On the one hand there is Beckett’s high-modernist fascination with the minutiae of agonized self-consciousness, with the heroic and hilarious efforts of terminally ordinary people to ward off the terror of their meaningless existences and entropic condition. On the other hand there is the postmodernist, high-camp performance style of Lea Delaria and David Greenspan, super savvy on pop culture, terminally hip and doggedly ironic, terrified of nothing except failing to please the audience.
Both sides lose.
Saddled with a poorly realized stage design (which inexplicably supplements the play’s famous earth mound and drop cloth sky with a gigantic picture frame), this Happy Days falls into the trap set by Beckett’s exceedingly odd—even mysterious—sense of humor. Because his characters’ forlorn antics manage to be as funny as they are pathetic, directors are often tempted to cast them with famous comedians. This works fine if the comedian is also an actor, and can layer the laughter over a real connection with the dense and manifold interiority that defines even the most clownish of Beckett’s people. If, as in this case, the comedian is a rambunctious, crowd-pleasing performer, more intent on connecting with her fans than with her character Winnie’s valiant persistence, something very strange happens: Every drop of comedy is drained from this lively and luminous play, leaving it opaque, inert, and tedious.
Though written as early as 1961, Happy Days was Beckett’s last full-length, two-act play: his farewell to the drama of beginning-middle-end, of logical developments, and comforting causality. Perhaps it was his final attempt to inquire if the passage of time can be meaningful: Can it bring understanding between spouses, love to lovers, tenderness to bloated and beleaguered bodies? The compulsively loquacious Winnie depends on the barely present Willie for her sanity, for her very existence; he, for his part, seems to need her encouragement and instruction to extract himself from the literal and metaphorical holes he inhabits.
As conceived by director Jeff Cohen and performed by Delaria and Greenspan, this Winnie and Willie have no trace of the inner life that makes relationships, in Beckett’s world and beyond, both necessary and impossible. Delaria turns Winnie’s desperate marital dialogue into the narcissistic, mugging monologue of the washed-up stand-up comic, complete with cheek-popping, lip-smacking, Groucho-ish cigar-wagging clichés. This makes Greenspan’s Willie—in spite of his inspired non-verbal vocalizations—not Winnie’s poignant partner but her abject straight man. There is never an ounce of hope that the couple will wrest some dignity and love from their mortifying situation: The conclusion is foregone, in a way that renders even Beckett’s dark vision positively cheerful. (Nor is there any chance that a powerhouse like this woman would sit still for this kind of treatment without kvetching mightily and explicitly about it!)
Instead of struggling toward connection, these two recall the plucky weirdos one sees on so-called “reality TV” night after night. In fact, that quintessentially postmodern genre may explain what went wrong with this production: It bought into the “new and improved” definition of reality that shows like Survivor push. A far cry from the affecting banality of everyday life and ordinary objects illuminated by the great realist tradition—from Chekhov’s samovars to Beckett’s toothbrushes—this is reality as spectacle and self-display. Lit by celebrity-making klieg lights rather than Beckett’s blazing, scorching sun, Delaria’s Winnie is neither pitiful nor terrifying: She is merely irritating. Hers is an extreme makeover that substitutes solipsistic chatter for Beckett’s piercing vision of human dignity in defeat.