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A CurtainUp Review

Marian Seldes and Brian Murray
Marian Seldes and Brian Murray in Counting the Ways
(Photo: Carol Rosegg )
When Edward Albee noted at a recent press conference that he was not interested "in living in a city where there isn't a production of Samuel Beckett running" he of course knew that Beckett was about to make an audience pulling re-appearance -- and with no less a partner to give the production a high profile than himself. Albee has collected three Pulitzers and enjoyed a sort of golden career resurgence since first sharing a program title page with Beckett in 1959 (Beckett's half being Krapp's Last Tape and Albee's his first and amazingly accomplished The Zoo Story).

To enliven and fortify the current pairing of Beckett and Albee, both men's work is being interpreted by Marian Seldes and Brian Murray who, though not married in real life, are becoming something of an ideal couple on stage -- notably for their appearance in Mr. Albee's The Play About the Baby which was a big hit at this very theater just a couple of seasons ago.

True to another Albee pronouncement, "We're all Beckett's children", his plays are often as enigmatic and dark as those of his literary "father." Not so in Beckett/Albee. Its three opening pieces written during Beckett's later years, represent the playwright in his most convention-breaking, death and loneliness focused mode. Counting the Ways, on the other hand, is Albee at his most playful and humorous. Director Lawrence Sacharaow's airy direction even indulges Albee's penchant for Hitchcock-like voice-over appearances (At the Signature Theatre, which devoted a season to his work, he drolly urged the audience to cough before rather than during the show and here he announces the title even as a printed sign appears).

Albee's play is listed and played last not only as a way for the living playwright to pay his respects to the master theatrical innovator who influenced Albee and his fellow post-modernists, but to bring release from the tense almost hypnotic mood of the Beckett monologues. This applies to the actors as well as the audience.

After their difficult solos Seldes and Murray obviously relish the chance to be together again as a couple who could have wandered in from a Noël Coward drawing room comedy. The pair virtually send of sparks of on-stage chemistry as they ask and answer questions ranging from the central "Do you love me?" to the absurdly absent-minded "How many children do we have?" They land their lines with the deftness of stand-up comedians and yet don't obliterate the underlying themes (the inevitable change in human relationships and the coming to the end of things) of this marital vaudeville in twenty scenes (the original title actually included a parenthetical "A Vaudeville"). They talk to each other, directly to the audience. At one point the playwright cuts them loose from the script to be themselves and create their own little cadenzas (Murray's hilarious improv on the California recall vote may change during the course of the run).

Counting the Ways, its title inspired by Elizabeth Browning's famous poem, is as delicious a theatrical dessert as the Crème Brulée that figures in the pleasures and disappointments of the marriage of the Albee-esquely named He and She. As for the short pieces for which Beckett himself coined the term "dramaticule", each calls upon the utmost proficiency of the actors which, of course is not a problem for Seldes and Murray.

In Not I, Seldes is amazing as the disembodied character named Mouth. Unless you can suspend your ideas about a play in terms of plot and character, you're likely to feel a sense of disorientation as your eyes focus on the lips and teeth which are as much of Seldes as can be seen through a spotlighted see-through circle on one of the set design's back panels. You recognize the wide lips, the distinctive voice (perhaps more so than Beckett would have liked) but the elliptical stream of words is not going to result in a sudden flash of making complete sense as to what all the words are about. The shadowy presence of a man identified as Auditor (Peter Kybart) adds to the aura of otherworldliness.

While A Piece of Monologue (by Murray) and Footfalls (Seldes again) aren't as enigmatic (or as mesmerizing) as Not I, none of these "dramaticules" are for anyone who wanders through a museum exhibit, with a head set to explain the fine points of what they are seeing. From the opening sentence, "birth was the death of him", Murray's monologue is obviously a rumination on death. Footfall, has Seldes quite realistically named May and pacing back and forth with slowly measured precision. Once again there's a disembodied face and voice spotlighted on a back panel, this one belonging to Delphi Harrington, who seems to be a mother whose invalidism has tethered May to a spinsterish existence as her caretaker making the limited range and slowness of the steps an echo of a confined and restricted life.

Lawrence Sacharow, an experienced hand at directing both Albee's and Beckett's plays, has staged these rarely produced works so that each perfectly fits its mood. Theater goers unfamiliar with Beckett's work might be well served to prepare for this evening with a visit to Center Stage at 48 W. 21st Street, where the Tangent Theatre Company is celebrating the 50th anniversary of Waiting For Godot, Beckett's most famous play (to October 25th only) in which "nothing happens twice" and which has engaged children as young as eight or nine.

For a CurtainUp' feature prompted by an Edward Albee/Harold Pinter double bill at Williamstown, see Beckett, the Spiritual Matchmaker Behind the Summer 2001 Mating of Albee and Pinter.

Not I, A Piece of Monologue and Footfalls by Samuel Beckett
Counting the Ways by Edward Albee
3 monologues written by Samuel Beckett
Directed by Lawrence Sacharow
Cast: Marian Seldes and Brian Murray
Set and Costume Design: Catherine Zuber Running Time: About 2 hr. 25 min. including one intermission.
Lighting Design: Michael Chybowski
Sound Design: Mark Bennett and Ken Travis
Running time: 2 hours and 20 minutes, including one 15- minute intermission
Century Center for the Performing Arts, 111 E.15th St, (Park Av S./Irving Place), 212-239-6200
From 9/25/03; opening 10/09/03.
Tues-Fri at 8pm, Sat at 2 and 8pm, Sun at 3 and 7:30 -- $65
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on 10/05 press preview

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