A director friend of mine used to muse mischievously about casting Samuel Beckett’s 1961 masterpiece Happy Days from the sitcom with the same title. Imagine Marion and Howard Cunningham (played by Marion Ross and the late Tom Bosley) — once ABC’s kitschy version of an all-American TV mom and dad — as Winnie and Willie, Beckett’s oracular homemakers dwelling halfway in their graves. My friend’s idea was experimental genius: The loquacious Winnie might be buried up to her chest in earth, but she’s a performer of sorts. Why not a cheery, plasticized icon of postwar domesticity?
Brooke Adams, who plays Winnie in Andrei Belgrader’s solid staging for the Theatre at Boston Court (now running at the Flea), is a far more subdued choice. She’s self-possessed but never flashy: It’s no mystery why she can’t attract Willie’s attentions. In her recognizable phrasings and facial expressions, Adams emphasizes her ordinariness (especially in the longer first act). Winnie wakes to an alarm bell, sorts out her personal effects, and unsuccessfully tries to entice the taciturn, newspaper-reading Willie into an exchange. Just another day for an old couple — except, of course, for the unspoken, never-acknowledged reality that Winnie stands nearly buried in the ground.
Tony Shalhoub brings a suitable air of befuddlement to wild-haired Willie, who mostly lurks behind Winnie’s mound. “Fornication!” he cries out, in one of his rare utterances, punctuated with a wicked masculine laugh. When the dirty old man later emerges, crawling downhill either to make contact with her or to grab her handgun and finish her (or himself) off — Beckett’s ironic ambiguity never gets resolved — Shalhoub’s physical struggle takes a clownish turn.
If you’ve seen other productions of Happy Days, one of the first things you might notice about Belgrader’s unmysterious production (with a set by Takeshi Kata) is how dry this dirt looks. That might sound like a critic’s cavil, but in Beckett’s dramas, every detail suggests values. Beckett notoriously situates the action in a giant burial site of sorts; we watch as Winnie’s banal daily consciousness gives way to rich memories in the second half, always mindful of her ultimate fate. Most productions I’ve seen make it a muddier place, with dark soil adding to the feeling of finality. Here the dirt looks dusty, like parched desert land. Life died long ago. And it feels more American too — we might be somewhere in flyover country, with a big sky. A backdrop hints at other hills in the range, suggesting that Winnie’s mound is just one of many, not an isolated case.
Conveying Winnie’s daily purgatory, Belgrader makes the first act (about two-thirds of the evening) about as controlled and flat as it gets, leaving Adams to give her monologue with minimal inflection. (“He just wants you to be frustrated with the play — that’s like his whole thing,” a young woman in the lobby opined at intermission.) In the second act, with Winnie now buried up to her neck, her flood of memories enlivens the drama while she moves closer to death. “To have been always what I am — and so changed from what I was,” she observes. Adams gives a nicely nuanced performance in this challenging portion, revealing Winnie’s frail but intricate mind while pronouncing Beckett’s poetry with precision. Belgrader’s staging ultimately comes off more devoted and studious than alluring, but it covers all of Beckett’s rugged terrain.
By Samuel Beckett
41 White Street