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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.

This 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

Surviving happiness
By Elizabeth Lawler

The 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

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

At 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.

Like DeLaria, David Greenspan is known for his outré histrionics. As Winnie’s husband, Willie, he speaks in rhythmic groans that recall a stroke victim. In the second act, when he mechanically crawls to center stage resembling a lunatic Uncle Sam, his autism is a relief after DeLaria’s logorrhea.

But there is a method to DeLaria’s whirling dervish. In the first act her shenanigans unnerve the audience. Staring fixedly at them, she appeals to their sympathy. But her performance alienates them. By the second act, she’s submerged up to her neck in sand, bereft of her heaving bosoms, and panicked at the prospect of losing Willie, her substandard companion; one feels her anxiety, not from her flailing around, but from her frightened eyes. The less she acts, the more the audience understands. DeLaria’s antics depict a woman struggling valiantly against life. This Winnie will not go gently.

If Winnie and Willie live on the beach, the clowns of Beckett’s Endgame at the Irish Rep reside in a rundown tenement, maybe in the Bronx. Clad in filthy striped pajamas, Adam Heller’s Clov is the manic caretaker in this nursing home from hell, scurrying around at master Hamm’s beck and call, gamely moving Hamm’s chair a half-inch to the right or checking the ashbins to confirm that Hamm’s parents, Nagg and Nell, are still alive. Tony Roberts’s wry and regal Hamm presides over the fracas with Heller as his long-suffering straight man. Together they evoke a sad, comic duo from the Catskills who have gone south, literally and metaphorically. Roberts numbly comforts himself: “We’re getting on.” But there is no warmth or connection here, only duty. They are stage partners, nothing more. Roberts effectively shows the twilight melancholy of Hamm, but Heller is too intent on getting to the kitchen, or getting out of the apartment, to care. The heart of the production beats in Alvin Epstein’s half-dead wraith Nagg, who despite his senility is the only one who remembers living. The final tableau of Hamm dying, unaware that faithful Clov has stayed anyway to witness his last breaths, fails to tug at the heartstrings because the gesture feels artificial: Clov left before the play began.

Kirsten Bowen is an M.F.A. student in Dramaturgy at A.R.T.’s Institute for Advanced Theater Training at Harvard University

Beckett under glass
By Anne Gridley

If I were to walk into a museum dedicated to the work of Samuel Beckett and say, “I’d like to see a production of Endgame,” I should think that the good curators would have shown me something like what recently played at the Irish Rep. Beckett’s impossible call for “grey light” made possible by a scrim at the opening, creates the appropriate emotional attitude. Downstage, large drums contain Nagg and Nell. Two windows. One chair on castors. A handkerchief. Check, check, check, and check. What is problematic about Charlotte Moore’s clean production of Beckett’s play is not that she adhered to the playwright’s intentions, but the reverence with which she did so. “Do you understand who this is,” Moore and her capable cast seem to be asking, “This is Samuel Beckett.” I may as well have been looking at the Shroud of Turin.

To be sure, the Beckett estate is notoriously strict. Many experimental approaches have been rejected or otherwise restricted, such as JoAnne Akalaitis’s Endgame at A.R.T., where the author refused to have his name attached to the show. Hamm’s first lines are “Me—to play.” Beckett’s estate certainly leaves little room to play, but it is the job of the director and the actors to liberate the intentions even within the most stringent restrictions.

As Nagg, Alvin Epstein managed to find some freedom, even though he was limited—not only by Beckett’s estate but by Beckett’s staging. Quite literally, he must act from a garbage can. Yet he was constantly exploring and developing his own vocabulary for the character. His previous experience with Beckett—Epstein appeared in the American premieres of both Waiting for Godot and Endgame—may have helped him take the Nobel Prize-winning playwright a little less seriously. At least Epstein does not treat Beckett as a holy relic. As Clov, Adam Heller shows great variety of non-verbal expression. His laughs, coughs, and shambling steps range from subjugated to hysterical. Too often when he speaks, however, he runs into the major problem of this production. Both Heller and Tony Roberts as Hamm are frequently found orating, instead of acting. This is an easy trap. Beckett’s language is nothing if not poetic. But I found myself thinking (especially during Hamm’s lengthy speeches) that I could just go home and read the play myself. I was being talked at instead of talked to. Because of the quality of sacredness that pervaded the production, there seemed to be a reluctance to dig deeper and explore the language more fully.

To treat a great piece of art with reverential purity encases it forever within a glass frame.

Anne Gridley is an M.F.A. student in Dramaturgy and Script Development at Columbia University’s School of the Arts.