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On Beckett

Like no other dramatist before him, Mr. Beckett's works capture the pathos and ironies of modern life yet still maintain his faith in man's capacity for compassion and survival — Program intro, On Beckett
Bill Irwin
Is it "gaw-dough" or "guh-dough?"

Call it the "tomayto/tomahto" question for lovers of existentialist drama. And while the rest of us would gladly call the whole thing off, Bill Irwin has a short evening of Samuel Beckett to unpack, and he's both calling the question and laughing at the conundrum. Thank merciful heaven that he is, since Beckett, the Nobel Prize-winning author of Endgame, Happy Days and Krapp's Last Tape, needs as many accessible entry points as someone can provide.

Having performed in a substantial number of the playwrights' works (including the 1988 Mike Nichols-directed Godot with Robin Williams and Steve Martin, at Lincoln Center), Irwin doesn't simply admire Beckett, he can't ever seem to shake the man. "This writing haunts me," he says. "It will not leave me alone."

On Beckett is kind of a rap session interspersed with scenes from the author's plays. A couple are well known (Waiting for Godot is included); many are not. Some of what comes out of Irwin's mouth when he is reciting Watt or a strand from Texts for Nothing is damn near incomprehensible. Which probably means he's delivering it correctly.

. As much as he is known as a Beckett authority, however, Bill Irwin is also an award-winning clown, and his decision to examine Beckett through the prism of clowning is a shrewd, if occasionally distracting, one. Given the challenges of the language (whether in its original French or English), it could be argued that Beckett should be staged with as little visual distraction as possible. How are we to zero in on life's tragic ironies if they come to us via a tall man with a putty-like face, loose limbs, baggy pants, oversized shoes and hats that seem to hang from the side of his face at impossible angles? On the other hand, the tramps, slaves and reprobates of Beckett's oeuvre are nothing if not fools of fortune. So if the laughs can help us collectively wade through the misery, then by all means, send in this clown.

. Enamored though he clearly is with his material, Irwin also knows Beckett is knotty, and he's doing his utmost to deliver it in manageable servings. When we get to Godot, the ground feels especially safe and, in this instance, silent. Benjamin Taylor, a young actor of considerable poise, shares the stage with Irwin for the scene in which Vladimir and Estragon are informed by an unnamed Boy that Mr. Godot will not come today. He will come tomorrow. (Taylor alternates with Carl Barber).

. He may be haunted, but the 90 minute play is anything but an exorcism. When you consider that so many of the playwright's iconic characters are face to face with the reaper, Bill Irwin &emdash; a very youthful 69 year old &emdash; could conceivably be Hamm-ing and Krapp-ing for years to come. For now, he is content to draw back the curtain and give us all a look at what has been so inspiring.

Irwin is a Broadway veteran, but he was born in Santa Monica, less than 20 miles from the Kirk Douglas Theatre. And with his clowning regalia in fine form and the words of a revered playwright at his disposal, Bill Irwin is every bit at home.

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. On Beckett
Conceived and performed by Bill Irwin
. Set Design: Charlie Corcoran
Costume Consultant: Martha Hally
Lighting Design: Michael Gottlieb
Sound Design: M. Florian Staab
Fight Director: Steven Rankin
Stage Manager: Laura K. Powell
. Plays through October 27, 2019 at the Kirk Douglas Theatre, 9820 Washington Blvd, Culver City, (213) 628-2772,
Running time: One hour and 30 minutes with no intermission
Reviewed by Evan Henerson

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