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Marian Seldes and Brian Murray in Counting the Ways
Moreness or Lessness
By Jonathan Kalb

By Samuel Beckett and Edward Albee
Century Center for the Performing Arts
111 E. 15th St.
Box office: (212) 239-6200

Henry IV
By William Shakespeare
Brooklyn Academy of Music


Once in a while, a production arrives in New York that is custom made for the venerable if dubious tradition of "second acting." (For the uninitiated: "second acting" means slipping in at intermission to see the second act of a show one is curious about but can't afford.) The multi-play evening Beckett/Albee, directed by Lawrence Sacharow, is just such a custom job. Counting the Ways, the Albee one-act in the second half, is the sole repository of artistic facility and discernment in the evening. The three short Beckett works performed before it--Not I, A Piece of Monologue, and Footfalls--are woefully misconceived, spoiled by the very extrovert sensibility that makes the Albee glisten.

Albee is an important and gifted dramatist, but he is not the soul mate of Beckett he is made out to be in this pairing. In 1960, when the American premiere of Krapp's Last Tape was coupled with The Zoo Story at the Provincetown Playhouse, producers and audiences could be forgiven for thinking that the two were fundamentally similar. They seemed then to have comparable preoccupations with futility, comparably dark senses of humor, and comparable tendencies to obsess over language. All true and apparently decisive four decades ago. It wasn't yet clear then that Beckett would go on to strip his works down to even leaner ghostly essences until he seemed to be striving toward silence. Nor did anyone yet know that Albee would eagerly pursue a much more worldly path toward mainstream avant-gardism. Whatever one thinks of the purportedly subversive edge that Albee's partisans insist he has retained, he has clearly made crucial compromises with celebrity culture in his very American career. His sitcom-flavored quippiness, his hammy star-turn set pieces, his deliberately heavy-handed metaphors: Albee is no monastic artist, and to set him up as Beckett's twin now out of nostalgia for some imagined moment when he might still have become that (the program contains adjacent photos of the two writers as young men) is to risk diminishing him with an absurd conceit.

Marian Seldes and Brian Murray were born to play Albee. They are constitutionally hammy in complementary ways, and both radiate powerful egocentric innuendo onstage even when sitting and saying nothing. They know how to accentuate the sort of seemingly gratuitous histrionic moments on which Albee builds his dramas, peppering nonchalance with a solemnity that reads as gravitas. I did not join the critical cheerleading for The Play About the Baby in 2001--I found that play trite and obvious--but I understand why many praised the chemistry between Seldes and Murray so highly. They have the knack of transforming stagey sardonicism into a strange sort of earnestness. Written in 1976, Counting the Ways contains some of the same basic elements as The Play About the Baby--vaudevillesque set-pieces (it's subtitled "A Vaudeville"), digressions where the actors address the audience directly--and Seldes and Murray make these seem like the original that the later play copied.

Counting the Ways consists of twenty-one scenes in which a husband and wife probe the quality of each other's love both directly and through discussion of side issues such as flower-petals, newspaper headlines, and food. They spar, cajole, wheedle and nag one another in a portrait of marital persistence and yearning with an unmistakable shadow over it (consciousness of death), always poised to darken the levity. Interestingly enough, when the author directed this play as part of the Signature Theater's all-Albee season in 1993, he did it deadpan and with younger-looking actors, and it came off as dull and dated.

The freer and more seasoned performers here give it weight, humor, and grave specificity. One never questions, say, the legitimacy or universality of arranging a supposedly quintessential situation around a wife's burning of her crème brulée, as one did in 1993. For one thing, these actors really are of a generation where such a faux pas might mean everything. And for another, the nuances they cull instinctively from the text redound entirely to Albee's credit. They're wholly plausible both as a charming couple and as histrionic monsters of self-involvement whose inability to transcend trivial annoyances (or even to keep within the confines of the fiction--"IDENTIFY YOURSELVES," shouts a deep voice from the wings, which sounds like Albee's) take on metaphysical resonance.

Beckett, for his part, had no use whatever for this or any kind of actorly showboating--at least that was his attitude from Play (1962-3) onward. His later works (and the ones in the Beckett/Albee program are all from the 1970s) approach his signature themes of nothingness, the imagination, and the void ("nothing is more real than nothing," says Molloy) through extreme actorly restriction. Expressive freedom is possible in these plays, but it can be exercised only from within the circumstances of real physical and vocal limitation he prescribes, if the works are to retain their haunting effect. The actor's self-abnegation, one could say, is the crucially non-metaphorical part of Beckett's metaphor. Beckett writes, in this later phase, from that inner voice we all possess which never yells or flaunts emotion but essentially drones as it shows us, unembellished, what and how we think.

His flow of introspective words, emanating from his punctiliously crafted stage tableaus, operates in counterpoint with the strange actors' dilemmas (speaking from urns, frozen on a plinth, or with one's head strapped to a masking apparatus), and these elements together force performer and spectator onto a shared plane of heightened concentration about the "mine" of emptiness Beckett drolly called "what not." If actorly denial is false or absent, if comfort or vanity are obviously held more dear than artistic sacrifice, then the whole operation collapses. That's why productions that follow the author's instructions to the letter can fall flat as easily as ingenious productions that try to improve on Beckett with directorial gimmickry: in either case, the play is ruined by excessive worldliness.

In Sacharow's production of Not I, Marian Seldes is not masked narrowly around the mouth as the text indicates, nor does she speak Mouth's torrential, self-denying monologue in a hurry. The whole of her head and chin from the nose down is visible beneath a black hemispherical hood resembling a beauty-parlor hair-drier, and light reflected off her whitened face reveals enough of the high, black-draped platform on which she sits to destroy all illusion of disembodiment. Seldes speaks in a slow, steady, deliberate manner that sounds wholly rational and allows her to color every phrase with impressively "understood" inflections and insinuations. When she pauses to deny the first person to Mouth's unheard interlocutor ("What? Who? No? She!") she seems to be speaking on a cell phone. One result is that the central theme of hysteria and feminine protest (against received language and the dominion of logos, involuntary sex, the notion of an integrated self, and more) has no place in this performance. Seldes's Mouth is not a surreally self-sufficient, figural organ but rather the glimpse of a wholly integrated, securely self-possessed woman telling herself wry, amusingly disconnected stories in the dark.

Similarly in Footfalls, Sacharow and Seldes have added personality and thespian sparkle to May, a character Beckett deliberately depersonalized with "disheveled grey hair" and a "worn grey wrap" trailing behind her as she paces methodically to and fro. The stage light here is brighter than I have seen it in ten viewings of this work ("dim, strongest at floor level, less on body, least on head," writes Beckett)--the better, I suppose, to illuminate the 75-year-old Seldes's beautifully brushed, shoulder-length tresses and low-necked multi-color gown with matching neck ribbon. She looks about 50, her cheerful voice sounds about 35, and when she turns at the end of each pace and gazes sunnily upward, wheeling round with her arms spread wide, she resembles Marlo Thomas in "That Girl." The play also has another character, a female voice, putatively May's mother, speaking from the darkness upstage, and Sacharow has transformed her into a visible woman (Delphi Harrington) who speaks to May from behind an upstage scrim, framed in attractive purple light.

Not that it matters much given Seldes's thoroughly un-ethereal May, but the result of giving the voice a visible source is to eliminate doubt about the number of characters truly present in the play. The other visible actress implies that May's mother is unequivocally there, even though the text contains numerous hints that one or both characters may be dead, that the distinction between mother and daughter is to an extent arbitrary, and that both may share aspects of the spectral character Amy whom May describes. Footfalls, like so many of Beckett's later writings, deals with ghostly presences, shades who interact crucially with voices in the dark, who may in fact be voices in the dark themselves. Hence the importance of the sound of May's repetitive footfalls, with their reassuring implication of continued physical presence, echoing against the indeterminate solidity and reality of everything else. Seldes's May is discouragingly grounded in the literal self.

As for Brian Murray, his Speaker in A Piece of Monologue doesn't even attempt humility or self-abnegation. Barreling onstage in a grey nightshirt and holey socks, he grimaces at the audience for a moment, shouts the word "BIRTH!" as if horror-struck ("Birth was the death of him. Again."), and then delivers his entire monologue with the grandiloquent phrasings and expressions of an old Shakespearean actor. Activities described in the speech, such as striking matches or turning to face the wall, are duly performed or mimed, and this juggernaut of illustration, fueled by the force of Murray's personality, overwhelms all thoughts beyond the literal. When this play is performed by a stationary actor speaking in even tones (as Beckett preferred), its incantatory descriptions of lonely nighttime routines, artifacts of memory, and repetitive graveside rituals take on deep ritualistic overtones for the audience. Murray leaves one pondering only the magnitude of his stentorian delivery and the extent to which celebrity itself is simply incompatible with this author.

The beefing (Albeefing?) up of Beckett is unfortunately common nowadays. The plays after Godot and Endgame just aren't done very often in America, so ignorance combines with fear and the assumption that a certain atextual razzle-dazzle is needed to accommodate the impatience of media-age couch-potatoes and mouse-clickers. Jeremy Irons's mugging for the camera in Ohio Impromptu and Damien Hirst's sensational interpretation of Breath as the adventure of a fugitive satellite are good examples (from the well-publicized Dublin Gate Theater's "Beckett on Film Project," released on video in the U.S. last year). Rejection of just that buzz-and-hype-centered mindset is actually the basis for Richard Maxwell's whole artistic enterprise. Disgust with theater akin to Sacharow's star-burned Beckett is what Maxwell says drives the notoriously flat, emotionally uninflected performance style that has made him an avant-garde star over the past several years.

Mostly, Maxwell has employed this flatness in directing his own plays, such as Cowboys and Indians, House, Boxing 2000, and Drummer Wanted. He believes it isn't really a style but rather the absence of one, a ground of subtraction that allows both spectators and actors freer access to possibilities of meaning than other theater provides. It would be wonderful if Maxwell's results really matched this quasi-Beckettian intention. Unfortunately, most of what I've seen from him so far has been worryingly broad-brushed and rough--a sort of one-size-fits-all via negativa.

This is certainly the case with his much anticipated production of Shakespeare's Henry IV at BAM. Maxwell got little out of Shakespeare by having his actors speak blandly and move stiffly in front of childishly painted backdrops. The whole exercise seemed like a mistaken effort to puncture some Shakespearean tradition that isn't really overinflated (not on this side of the Atlantic at any rate). Maxwell came off as rebelling against the very idea of vocal and physical competence in actors, and few spectacles are duller than that sort of generalized adolescent defiance. Provocative flatness certainly was employed as style in this Henry IV, no matter what Maxwell says, and the production was thus an important reminder that it's actually no easier to "put on" true humility and restraint than it is to "put off" carefully cultivated worldliness.

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