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Shows Worth Seeing:



Happy Days
By Samuel Beckett
BAM Harvey Theatre
651 Fulton St., Brooklyn, NY
Box office: (718) 636-4100

Despite all the hoopla surrounding Beckett’s centennial in 2006, there hasn't been a really major (read: mind-changing, inspiring and effective) Beckett production in New York in many years. One has just arrived, however: Deborah Warner’s production of Happy Days, with an extraordinary performance by Fiona Shaw as Winnie. Anyone who has never seen this play before, or who has appreciated it dutifully without ever really enjoying it, should rush out to see this version, which is absolutely true to the grim situation and subject matter but nevertheless fun, uplifting and revelatory about a much-produced modern classic. The action, of course, involves a woman filling time while buried up to her waist in one act and up to her neck in the next. Here the setting is not the plain earthen mound the script calls for but rather an expanse of broken concrete chunks that plays gorgeously and resonantly against the arrested decay of the BAM Harvey Theater: self-conscious theatricality standing as a counter-pressure to inevitable processes of wasting away. Shaw plays a younger-seeming, more extroverted and hence more insecure Winnie than I’ve ever seen before. More remarkable, she succeeds in engaging the audience more than any other actress has, with innumerable coquettish shrugs, grins and comic gestures that are never cheap or dishonest but nevertheless frequently produce squeals of pleasure from the house. That’s right, squeals of pleasure—in Beckett! The show is simply a liberating experience. Don’t take my word for it. Just go.



The Homecoming
By Harold Pinter
Cort Theatre
138 W. 48th St.
Box office: (212) 239-6200

Pinter considers The Homecoming his greatest play. He’s proud of the shape of it—a slow, scary rise culminating in a precipitous fall, like the first drop of a roller-coaster—and he speaks fondly of its savagery as the flip side of family love. The play is certainly the closest he ever came to endowing one of his deliberately enigmatic situations with the quality of myth: a man returns with his wife to his childhood home, is drawn instantly back into a weird battle of wills he left years ago, and discovers that his wife (the only female in the house) is now a powerful player in the newly configured battle, despite being spoken of as a victim. The Homecoming is a masterpiece that rarely comes off as one in performance because it contains so many ruinous traps for actors and directors: the temptation to invest in the seedy north London reality, for instance, or the hints of Jewish background, or the tones of screeching hostility. The play works only under conditions of intense control that many actors find unnatural—especially with the role of Ruth, the wife, an alien among aliens. Daniel Sullivan’s production at the Cort Theatre is an extraordinary instance of such control. Each of the actors is splendidly precise, narrowly defining a focus of both desire and malice for each other person onstage, so that while the power struggles within the group are never explained, they come off as strangely lucid the entire time. The most remarkable is Eve Best, whose Ruth is physically still much of the time—the play is, from one perspective, about the male gaze—but who finds as much eloquence in small eye and leg movements as Billie Whitelaw did in Beckett. Ian McShane is equally fine as Max, the father, finding just the right mixture of fury and terror in his incessant bluster. This is the strongest production of Pinter in New York since Christopher Plummer did No Man’s Land at the Roundabout 13 years ago. Yet the theater was barely two thirds full on the pre-Christmas matinee I attended. Anyone contemplating a visit—and everyone ought to—should get a ticket now.



The Seafarer
By Conor McPherson
Booth Theater
222 W. 45th St.
Box office: (212) 239-6200

Conor McPherson is the playwriting counterpart to the garrulous uncle who never shuts up at family gatherings, but for reasons you don’t quite understand you can’t stop listening to him. He’s a bewitching yarn-spinner with deep affection for the people he describes and skewers, and a writer with that gift makes you forget about a lot of matters that would otherwise bother you: like flimsy allegory and overused circumstances. Who would have thought there was more dramatic juice to be squeezed out of a bunch of pathetic Irish good-for-nothings sitting around getting soused? Well, there is, and it’s not because of the unconvincing Faust parable McPherson splices into the action. One Christmas eve, four alcoholics gather at a suburban home north of Dublin to play cards and drown their self-loathing, and they’re joined by a stranger who turns out to be the devil, who threatens one of their souls but then loses in an eleventh-hour reversal. None of that really matters, though. The plot, such as it is, is just a scaffold for some of the strongest and most acutely observed acting seen on New York stages this year. Jim Norton, who was also wonderful in McPherson’s The Weir, is unforgettable as blind Richard, who mercilessly manipulates his brother Jim (David Morse) but who also hides life-saving compassion behind his bluster and trickery. Conleth Hill’s portrayal of Ivan is also first-rate, and terrifically odd, played as a sort of affable leech who sucks his fill while waiting to be burned with a cigarette. The major achievement in this production is the collection of stunningly accurate alcoholic portraits, which collectively tell their own moving tale of avoidance, denial, incapacitating self-contempt, and implausible redemption.


Brian Cox and Rufus Sewell in Tom Stoppard's "Rock 'n' Roll." Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre, NYC, 2007. Photo: Joan Marcus.

Rock 'n' Roll
By Tom Stoppard
Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre
242 W. 45th St.
Box office: (212) 239-6200

On the face of things, Rock ‘n’ Roll could be easily taken for the usual overstuffed Stoppard mélange that tries to wow us with a collision of multiple complicated subjects and ends up dealing with none satisfactorily. There are at least three different plays colliding here: one about secret police excesses and government paranoia in Czechoslovakia after the violent end of the Prague spring; one about a die-hard Communist Cambridge professor pressured to clarify his relationship to Eros; and one about the former Pink Floyd member Syd Barrett, who went into seclusion after a mental breakdown in the late 1960s. Impressively, all of this actually comes together into an emotionally coherent and satisfying whole, partly because one of the stories is clearly personal for Stoppard and partly because of the uses the play makes of rock music. The character Jan (played with unforgettable precision and subtle suggestion by Rufus Sewell) is a brilliant Czech graduate student at Cambridge who decides to return to Prague in 1968 rather than leave like many other intellectuals. His story of having political activism gradually thrust upon him by the actions of brutal authorities is the Czech-born Stoppard’s imaginative speculation on how his life might have gone had he chosen to return to his birthplace as an adult. There are blatant nods to several of Stoppard’s intellectual heroes of the time, especially Vaclav Havel and Pavel Kohout. But the force that ultimately binds all the play’s strands (and achieves deep connections with the audience) is the rock music that Jan loves, which plays loudly and extensively between scenes, is instrumental in transforming him, and ultimately links up with the professorial speculations on Eros. Brian Cox is just the right sort of pontificating powerhouse for the role of Max, the professor. Sinead Cusack, Alice Eve and Nicole Ansari are excellent as the women in his life, who pull him away from his neat mechanistic model of the human psyche. And the director Trevor Nunn does such a fine job of elegantly keeping all these various balls in the air that he should get some sort of award for juggling.



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