If you ask me…
By Tom Holehan

BECKETT’S “HAPPY DAYS” REVIVED IN WESTPORT

Let the head-scratching begin!  Samuel Beckett’s avant garde classic, “Happy Days”, is currently back on stage at the Westport Country Playhouse under the direction of Mark Lamos and starring the wonderful Dana Ivey.  The 1960s existential comedy/drama always did manage to simultaneously entertain, baffle, bore and infuriate audiences and this current revival is no exception.  Be prepared.

Winnie, a decidedly cheerful older woman (Ms. Ivey), is buried up to her bosom in a pile of rocks with the semblance of a murky sky upstage and nothing but a large black handbag and a pale cream parasol by her side.  In Winnie’s running monologue of mostly non sequiturs Becket explores optimism, aging, loneliness and husband/wife relations among many other themes.  Most of Winnie’s dialogue is directed towards her little-seen and heard husband, Willie (Jack Wetherall), who appears only occasionally and speaks primarily in a series of grunts and single exclamations.  By act two (Lamos has elected not to take an intermission but joins the two parts with a brief pause between acts) Winnie is buried up to her neck, still somewhat optimistic about her situation and ready to sing by final curtain.

So what does it all mean?  Beckett provides few clues though the state of modern marriage seems an obvious theme.  In previous productions of the classic - most notably Irene Worth’s legendary performance in 1979 and, more recently, Estelle Parsons’ unique take on the role at Hartford Stage - more humor and tragedy seemed to be mined from the text.  Ivey is a formidable player and while she gets Winnie’s optimism exactly right, what is missing is any sense of a tragic core to the work.  This results in a good, solid rendering of Beckett’s challenging piece but one that is ultimately lacking in power and poignancy.

Prior to curtain on opening night, the dapper and fiercely intelligent Mr. Lamos shared some background information about the play.  While always well-spoken, Lamos seemed to be apologizing for the “weird play” his loyal (conservative?) Westport subscribers were about to witness.  He also informed the audience that this was the first Beckett play ever produced in the theatre’s 80-year history.  More than anything,  it’s admirable that a gifted director like Lamos be given the opportunity to try edgier fare this season along with crowd-pleasers like “She Loves Me” and “I Do!, I Do!”.

John Arnone’s scenic design is questionable at best.  The rocks are visually interesting but the traditional use of sand or earth still seems like a better choice for the play.  The precise and glaring light provided by designer Stephen Strawbridge works well throughout.  It must be noted that during the scene break and before the 80 minute production had concluded, a number of theatergoers used the opportunity to flee the theatre.  Beckett was never and will never be embraced by the masses.  Light summer fare is not his specialty.

 “Happy Days” continues at the Westport Country Playhouse through July 24th.  For further information or ticket reservations call the theatre box office at 203.227.4177 or visit: www.westportplayhouse.org.

Tom Holehan is Co-chairman of the Connecticut Critics Circle and Artistic Director of Stratford’s Square One Theatre Company.  He welcomes comments at: tholehan@yahoo.com.  His reviews and other theatre information can be found on the Connecticut Critics Circle website: www.ctcritics.org.
This review appeared in Elm City Newspapers beginning 7.14.10

 

 

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