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Beckett at his best

Beckett’s Happy Days’ at the Flea Theater

In
3 minute read
Majestic in her determination and endurance: Brooke Adams in "Happy Days"
Majestic in her determination and endurance: Brooke Adams in "Happy Days"

Emily Dickinson once said, “If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry." So, too, every once in a while, you see a revival of a well-known classic that takes off the top of your head, making you experience the power of the work as if for the very first time.

Such is the case with the superb production of Happy Days, now playing at the tiny Flea Theater in downtown Manhattan, featuring the brilliant Brooke Adams as Winnie and supported by the superb Tony Shalhoub (Adams’s husband) as Willie.

Samuel Beckett’s 1960 play about long-term marriage is famous for the almost impossible challenges it poses for its cast. It is essentially a stream-of-consciousness monologue, requiring the actress playing Winnie to speak nonstop for two hours about nothing but the minutest details of her “heavenly day” (and course that “nothing” is everything, in Beckett’s world). In Act One, Winnie is buried in a mound of sand up to her waist, so she’s only mobile from the torso up. A bright blue sky flashes above her, and a merciless sun beats down on her. In Act Two, she’s buried up to her neck, so she has no mobility at all – except for her facial expressions.

As for the actor playing Willie, her husband, he has only a half-dozen lines (plus an assortment of coughs and grunts), that’s all, and yet he’s on stage for the entire time, sprawled on that huge mound in a variety of excruciatingly painful positions.

Only the fearless have tackled Winnie: Dame Peggy Ashcroft, Billie Whitelaw, Irene Worth, and recently, Juliet Stevenson and Fiona Shaw. But according to Adams, when director Andrei Belgrader asked her if she wanted to play the role, she said “yes” without hesitation. As it has turned out, it’s been both an opportunity and a performance of a lifetime for this luminous actress.

Daily rituals of existence

The play is a marvel, and so is Adams. Though of petite stature and demure composure, Adams’s Winnie is majestic in her determination and endurance. From the moment the bell rings and Winnie starts “another happy day,” she commands our attention absolutely. Beckett puts her through her daily ritual: the emptying of her handbag, the brushing of her teeth, the applying of her lipstick, the donning of her hat, etc. The details are minute, mundane, and so is existence, Beckett is saying. But each and every moment is, no matter how inconsequential it may seem, of huge consequence. (The huge black revolver Winnie also withdraws from her bag reminds her just how precarious the events each day can be, despite their numbing predictability.) Meanwhile, Adams’s bob of white blond hair and her brilliant smile dazzle us, assuring us that she’s “grateful,” oh so grateful. We are completely in her thrall.

Every so often, Winnie calls out to Willie, just to be sure he’s there. A gray matted head bobs from behind the mound, and assenting grunts are heard, confirming that their endless marriage is still their foundation, like that mound of matted sand. Willie’s coughing fit (lasting a full two minutes) is one of the comedic highlights of this interminable happy day that — thanks to these virtuosic performers — seems to go by in minutes.

A precarious balance

When a cast and director are in synch, anything and everything is possible. Director Andrei Belgrader understands the precarious balance of tragedy and comedy in Beckett’s work. Moreover, he has unearthed a horror that I’ve always sensed underneath the surface of Beckett’s plays but have never seen it brought to light before with such blinding clarity. The sight of Willie making that final, agonizing climb up the mound under that scorching, pitiless sun, desperately extending his hand to Winnie (who, buried up to her neck, cannot return his reach), evokes such a powerful mixture of happiness and horror that I shall never forget it. That final devastating vision of long-term marriage and aging, as the day — and their life together — crawl toward an inexorable end, is a truth almost too blinding to behold.

What, When, Where

Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days. Andrei Belgrader directed. Through July 18 at the Flea Theater, 41 White Street, New York. 212-352-3101 or theflea.org.

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