Monday, June 29, 2015

32 (2015-2016): Review of HAPPY DAYS (seen June 25, 2015)

"Not Such Happy Days"
Stars range from 5-1.
Ever since its world premiere at New York’s Cherry Lane Theatre in 1961, starring Ruth White, HAPPY DAYS, Samuel Beckett’s brilliant metaphoric depiction of man’s existential plight, has received countless productions. New York’s many revivals have starred a wide array of topflight character actresses as Winnie—the aging woman who lives out her days partly buried in a dirt mound—among them Jessica Tandy (1972), Irene Worth (1979), Ruth Malaczech (1998), Joyce Aarons (2002), and Fiona Shaw (2014). Some of these performances have been hailed as triumphs, others considered respectable, and yet others dismissed as failures.
Brooke Adams. Photo: Joan Marcus.
The play’s current Winnie, at the Flea Theatre, is Brooke Adams, with her real-life husband, Tony Shalhoub (TV’s “Monk,” Lincoln Center’s Act One), as Willie, Winnie’s longtime husband, 60. For all his star power, it should be noted, Mr. Shalhoub’s mostly pantomimic role is largely performed with his presence partly concealed and his back to the audience. His entire role consists of only 47 words, while Winnie speaks almost nonstop for two hours in an exceedingly tough role that has been likened to a Hamlet for women.
Tony Shalhoub, Brooke Adams. Photo: Joan Marcus.
The production, directed by Andrei Belgrader—whose DOCTOR FAUSTUS is currently at the Classic Stage Company—originated at Pasadena’s The Theatre@Boston Court and was seen also in Los Angeles and Boston. Its publicity materials suggest that the play is “newly relevant to a generation burdened by climate change and environmental doom,” which may be true, but there’s nothing on stage that specifically calls attention to this or that draws attention away from Beckett’s original intentions. Beckett, so fastidious about how his plays were presented that he provided scrupulous stage directions for every movement and even took to directing them himself (his 1979 staging of HAPPY DAYS with Billie Whitelaw can be viewed on YouTube), might have argued with some of Mr. Belgrader’s choices.  Essentially, though (unlike Mr. Belgrader’s problematic DOCTOR FAUSTUS), this is a straightforward, respectful mounting that follows most of Beckett’s requirements.
Brooke Adams. Photo: Joan Marcus.
I suspect, of course, that Beckett would not have been happy with having the scene where the partly visible Willie, facing upstage, not only examines an erotic picture (as in the script) but vigorously masturbates while looking at it; where Winnie, having asked Willie for an encore after he sings a bit, breaks the fourth wall and encourages the audience to call for an encore as well; and an extended nose-blowing bit by Willie that goes on ad infinitum. But such moments are thankfully few and, in general, there’s an air of Beckettian authenticity to the proceedings.  

HAPPY DAYS, a landmark of the great Irish author's minimalism, is set in a desolate, uneven wasteland (designed by Takeshi Kata) dominated by a large mound of scorched grass in which Winnie, a woman of 50, is embedded up to her waist. The landscape is surrounded by a cyclorama on which blue skies, clouds, and distant mountains are painted. The lighting, by Tom Ontiveros, is, as per Beckett’s dictum, “blazing.” This barren world may be intended to evoke a world of environmental ruination, but it’s exactly what Beckett asks for; however he may have sympathized with them, issues of climate change don’t seem to have been one of his main concerns. Other productions have attempted to suggest environmental issues by incorporating reminders of modern man’s despoliation of the earth’s resources in the setting, but nothing like that is apparent here.

To Winnie’s left is a large leather bag in which all her daily necessities are kept, including a pistol, a worn toothbrush, a magnifying glass, eyeglasses, a bottle of patent medicine, a hand mirror, lipstick, a music box, and the like, each of which she makes deliberate use of as she rambles on. To her right is a parasol. At the rear, we can often see the back of Willie’s head and shoulders, or his raised hand, a ratty straw boater on his head worn rakishly directly over a carefully draped handkerchief. He lives in a cave, reached by a tunnel, behind the mound. Beckett makes no attempt to explain Winnie and Willie’s circumstances; they just are, and it’s the audience’s task to comprehend the meaning behind the play’s rather accessible concerns as Winnie natters away to the unlistening Willie. She carries out her daily rituals, cheerfully insisting—when inspired by a hint of positivity from Willie—that this will be a happy day, as human functions become increasingly circumscribed and life creeps stealthily to its conclusion.

Her hair bright yellow, her décolletage bulging (the playwright calls for “shoulders bare, low bodice, big bosom”), Ms. Adams, best known for her film work (Days of Heaven), gives a fine rendition of Winnie; she brings her girlish, still pretty charm (she’s eligible for Social Security) to bear, finding multiple ways to take advantage of the limiting circumstances of performing while seen only from the waist up in act one, and for act two with only her head visible. In Beckett’s own production, Ms. Whitelaw had her neck exposed in the second act, but Ms. Adams’s mobility is even further constricted by having her neck covered and only her head seen, thus further increasing our focus on her face.

She handles all this quite well, is expressive enough to capture Winnie’s many subtextual transitions, has a lovely smile, and convincingly conveys the air of a personality whose eternal optimism and fondness for “the old style” refuses to let her deteriorating condition defeat her; on the other hand, she emits a rather low-beam intensity, partly because of her voice quality and partly because of the air of lassitude caused by occasionally draggy pacing. Of course, she can be harsh, joyous, ironic, scared, angry, hopeful, and despairing, and even hums “The Merry Widow Waltz,” but too often she comes off as someone who chats mindlessly because there’s nothing better to do than as someone who’s determined to get something off her chest. Beckett offers Winnie many funny lines, some rather earthy, but, while Ms. Adams's performance rolls on by more or less amusingly, there’s a dearth of laughs in it. There’s also not much of the pathos needed to move us.

While it’s important to convey the tedium of Winnie’s endless days in a world where the sun never sinks and sleep is incessantly interrupted by the raucous ringing of a bell, the audience itself shouldn’t feel the dullness; this, however, especially in act one, is what happens. Ms. Adam’s portrayal of this now iconic role, while far from a failure, misses being a triumph and falls into the category of  “respectable.”

Mr. Shalhoub is totally unrecognizable as Willie; he's scruffily bearded, wears a comical hairpiece suggesting baldness and stringy, unkempt, gray hair, and looks like a homeless man, unlike the more elegant look of shaved head and well-groomed handlebar mustache affected by Leonard Fenton in the Beckett-directed version. He grunts his few lines, spoken mainly while facing upstage and reading the newspaper, rather than sharply enunciating them, like Fenton. 

In the final scene, where Willie emerges in top hat and tails and crawls toward Winnie, seeking either the gun placed by her side or Winnie herself (Beckett is deliberately ambiguous), Mr. Shalhoub’s Willie goes through all sorts of physical exertions as he seeks to get traction on the mound, none of which Beckett calls for in his script, although others (like George Voskovic in the Irene Worth production) have done something similar. We can perhaps excuse this on the grounds that, after all, an actor of Mr. Shalhoub’s stature needed something notable to do in a play during which his character is largely invisible.

Other Viewpoints:
New York Times
The Guardian
Talkin' Broadway
New York Theater

Flea Theatre
White Street, NYC
Through July 18