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A CurtainUp Review
One's appreciation for Beckett's metaphor-laden plays rely almost completely on actors and directors who take on the challenge with uncompromising artistry and sensitivity without blurring Beckett's vision. Having only recently been more persuaded than perhaps some of my colleagues that director Andrei Belgrader's broadly comical, adaptation of Dr. Faustus was credible and clever, I wasn't sure how respectful he was going to be with one of Beckett's (officially not-to-be-tampered-with) masterpieces. Therefore I found myself listening a little harder to the words of Winnie, the middle-aged woman who is buried up to her waist in a mound of arid earth.
Not yet completely entombed by this elevated grave that we perceive as doggerel symbolism, Winnie clings with a happy heart to the redundant, everyday activities of life— brushing her teeth, searching for lipstick in her handbag, and shielding herself with a parasol from the noon sun. "Sorrow keeps breaking in" on Winnie not because she can no longer read the small writing on her toothbrush, or because the past and its memories are slowly slipping away, but because she senses the inevitability of death and the transience of life.
But Winnie, as both hilariously and heartbreakingly played by Brooke Adams, is not depressed but sincerely grateful for the joys that each new sun-up-in-the-morning brings. "The old extinguisher" has not claimed her yet. Nor has it claimed her mostly unseen husband Willie, as played wonderfully, if also in necessarily brief, comically gross increments by Tony Shalhoub. He apparently has his own dugout somewhere to the rear of Winnie's mound. If and when Willie does manage to crawl into view on all fours, we also get a glimmer of their long ago curtailed sexual natures as well as their sublimely soured relationship.
But above all what must reach us, teach and amuse us is Winnie's two-act monologue. It is an affirmation and a surrender to life. Adams, a splendid stage actress whom many, however, will mostly likely recall as the frightened heroine in the classic horror flick Invasion of the Body Snatchers comes prepared to instruct and amuse. With sudden bursts of digressive reflections and in many unpredictable ways, she affects a kind of self-amused resignation that reveals Winnie's vulnerability as much as it does her still prospering joie-de vivre.
Certainly the peaks and valleys of Beckett's meticulously orchestrated prose offer any actress worth her salt everything she could want save a ravishing wardrobe. But, Adams, who has somehow managed to keep her hair bleached to a platinum sheen, also colorizes the often bleak imagery of Beckett's words without losing a beat or a blink. Hers is a performance that gets better and more touching as Beckett's brand of mockery begins to break through. It is interesting to note a professional connection with her co-star, to whom she's been married since 1992. She previously appeared in his hit TV series Monk and collaborated with him on the film Made Up that she produced and that Shalhoub directed.
As Willie, Shalhoub essays his token grunts and groveling with painstaking exactitude. I couldn't help thinking that Beckett might also could also have been mocking the famous final moments in the epic western film Duel in the Sun, as Winnie urges the determined but almost totally spent and enervated Willie to keep scratching his way up the inhospitable mound toward her . . . or is it toward something else? This has to be one of the most stunningly droll climaxes in dramatic literature.
Belgrader is at his most restrained. He graciously lets Adams and Beckett do all the talking. As far as proper arid mounds go, designer Takeshi Kata has made sure it is not an easy one for the pitiable Willie to navigate. Happily the audience need not navigate but simply negotiate its own place while entrapped in Beckett-land.
This production played engagements in Boston and L.A. prior to New York. Speaking of droll, it is doubtful that audiences will confuse this Happy Days with a similarly named touring musical version of the hit TV series.
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