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
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
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.