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Theater Review: Beckett, briefly, on adultery — English-style

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Joseph Hurley

PLAY, by Samuel Beckett. Directed by Randy Sharp. Featuring Wren Arthur, Nancy Cashman, and Robert Ierardi. Axis Theatre Company. At the One Sheridan Square Theatre, 1 Sheridan Sq., NYC. Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m. Through Nov. 20.

As written, Samuel Beckett’s "Play," sometimes produced as "Comedie," involves three adults, two women and a man, encased in gigantic funerary urns, with only their heads projecting from the necks of the vessels which imprison them.

In most stagings, the faces of the characters, known only as Woman #1, Man, and Woman #2, are fully seen only when a harsh spotlight, often described as the play’s fourth character, catches them. The sudden illumination is the cue for speech, sometimes catching the actor in mid-thought, and in other instances prompting the performer to resume a phrase or a sentence that had been abandoned the last time the light departed.

For the new production, inaugurating the first full season of the Axis Theatre Company in its new home at 1 Sheridan Square, director Randy Sharp has decanted the play, eliminating the urns completely, and, instead, presented the actors, fully visible at all times, seated side-by-side on chairs placed on a sliding platform somewhat resembling a diving board, pushed into place before the lights come up, with the actors at the ready, microphones before their mouths, and, apparently, their hands tied behind their backs.

The effect, put simply, is somewhat like a trio of handcuffed telephone operators, resolutely confronting their fates.

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Above the heads of the three actors hang a trio of television monitors, on each of which is the black-and-white image of the performer seated directly underneath.

Behind the players is a large screen, onto which is projected a series of fragments of film, sometimes illustrating ideas or objects specifically mentioned in the Beckett text, sometimes catching the characters in the course, for the most part, of doing totally ordinary things, such as strolling on the lawn, sleeping, sunning themselves, and, in the case of one of the women, giving herself a manicure.

Usually, "Play" requires something in the nature of 20 minutes to perform, which was the time required when the Gate Theatre of Dublin brought all of Samuel Beckett’s stage pieces to Lincoln Center’s Festival ’96.

Then, the three unnamed characters were played by Olwen Fouere, Bernadette McKenna and Stephen Brennan. In the Axis production, which will play Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 8 p.m. through Nov. 20, the performers are Wren Arthur, Nancy Cashman, and Robert Ierardi.

Normally, the three actors go through the same material twice, with slight and subtle variations in interpretation and emphasis. In the Axis production, housed in the old home of Charles Ludlum’s Ridiculous Theatrical Company, now beautifully refurbished in crisp, attractive high-tech style, the performers appear to be working their way through the text more than twice, and seemingly in a somewhat reordered way, although that may not be the case.

The film segments, created by Mott Hupfel/Joaquin Baca-Asay and edited by Michael Huetz, and incorporated into Kyle Chepulis’s sleek set design, have the effect of domesticating Beckett’s text. Since we see the "Man" and "Woman #2" in a domicile with a body of water in the background, complete with a fleet of sailboats and other craft, it’s impossible not to see them in a suburban, middle-class situation, perhaps on Long Island Sound.

"Woman #1" then, unavoidably, becomes "the other woman," the "outsider," and even the "home wrecker," because she is seen against a serene-seeming situation of which she is not a part, except as a disruptive "intruder," roiling up the surface of the scene.

With the alterations this version of "Play" runs exactly 33 minutes, a point that is announced, repeatedly, on an electronic display in the theater’s subterranean lobby.

"Play," supposedly written in 1963, is among the better known and more frequently produced of Samuel Beckett’s brief plays, and, because of its subject matter, often the stuff of commercial theater and what the French call boulevard comedy, also one of the most readily accessible.

One of Beckett’s biographers, James Knowlson, has written that "Play" is "steeped in a middle-class English ‘Home Counties’ atmosphere rather than an Irish one." He cites as evidence the mentions in the text of "china cups of green tea sipped in the cool ‘morning room,’ " and references to "the sound of an old hand mower," "a garden roller," and "a smoldering bonfire" to support his views.

The subject matter of "Play" is, of course, a middle-class adulterous affair, which, in this particular production, ends up seeming somehow closer to the work of Harold Pinter than to anything we have come to associate with the Dublin-born Beckett.

Knowlson goes on to argue the "Englishness" of "Play" by citing such phrases and terms as "peaked," "all heart to heart," "bygones bygones," "settle my hash," and "not much stomach for her leavings," all present in the text, and several repeated more than once.

Some accounts maintain that the seed of "Play" can be found in an intense relationship Beckett has with a BBC script editor named Barbara Bray in the period before his marriage to Suzanne Deschevaux-Dumesnil, which took place only a couple of years before the time in which the playwright is generally thought to have written "Play."

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