Category: Archive

Theater Review Piled high in BeckettBy Joseph Hurley

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

HAPPY DAYS, by Samuel Beckett. Directed by Jonathan R. Polgar. Featuring Angela Vitale and Duncan Hazard. Jean Cocteau Repertory Bouwerie Lane Theatre, 330 Bowery. Through June 20.

It seems as though Samuel Beckett is always in residence on one New York stage or another. No sooner had "Molloy" departed the Irish Arts Center than yet another production of the author’s "Happy Days" opened down at the Jean Cocteau Rep down at the Bouwerie Lane Theatre, proving to be one of the more interesting stagings of this work in recent seasons.

That’s saying something, because "Happy Days" is teetering on the brink of overfamiliarity.

Where this particular "Happy Days" is strongest is probably in its physical aspects. This is the Beckett play, of course, in which the defiantly optimistic heroine, Winnie, addresses the audience from a mound of earth in which she is encased, in the first act, up to her waist, and, after the intermission, up to her neck.

Angela Vitale’s thin-armed Winnie is asleep in her imprisonment when the audience enters the theater. The earthen mound that is her home resembles terra cotta, rich, deep-hued and baked-looking. Behind her is a desert landscape slightly reminiscent of the parched paintings of Georgia O’Keefe.

The impression is unavoidably nuclear and redolent of the American Southwest, perhaps specifically New Mexico, which is the subject of so much of O’Keefe’s finest work.

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It is almost as though this particular Winnie is a suburban housewife who has foolishly and inexplicably wandered into a nuclear testing area and become entombed there. Winnie describes her days are being begun and ended by a sort of alarm bell, yet, toward the conclusion of the first act, as she is awaiting an audible signal which never comes, there is a blinding flash of light, after which it is virtually impossible not to think of "Happy Days" in nuclear terms.

Beckett’s first-known reference to what became "Happy Days" came on Oct. 8, 1960, when he made a dated notebook entry reading simply "Play. Female Solo."

Indeed, it would be all too easy to think of the play as a solo, because of the dominance of the part of Winnie. In truth, the heroine has a mate, Willie, and while his participation is minimal when compared with Winnie’s, it would be a mistake to underestimate Willie’s importance in terms of the overall event, particularly when the role is as well-played as it is at the Bouwerie Lane, under the crisp, no-nonsense direction of Jonathan R. Polgar.

Duncan Hazard, the actor playing Willie, seems somewhat younger and considerably hardier than most performers of the role. Actress Vitale is almost too young to be an ideal Winnie, and the fact that her hair has been doused in gray paint is one of the production’s shortcomings, since it lends the whole operation the very slight suggestion of a college production.

Unlike many Beckett plays, "Happy Days" was written in English, and later, in the spring and summer of 1962, translated by the author into French.

Beckett’s initial description of the mound in which Winnie is encased or, perhaps, entrapped, was recorded in one of the exercise books he habitually used. What he saw in his mind was "a grassy expanse rising gently front to a low mound, summit about 4′ high."

Strict as Beckett was about his requirements during his lifetime, and rigorous as the executors of his estate have striven to be since his demise, there have always been alternations and compromises from production to production. The "grassy expanse" envisioned by the playwright is, safe to say, less frequently in evidence than the variations directors and designers bring to the project.

"Happy Days," which translates into French as "Oh les Beaux Jours,’ a phrase Beckett lifted from Paul Verlaine’s poem "Colloque Sentimental," is one of the playwright’s clearest, most accessible works, at least on the surface.

Why, along with a hand mirror, a toothbrush, and a few items of makeup, does Winnie’s black straw totebag contain a pistol she lovingly refers to as "Brownie," seemingly because Beckett had in mind a Browning automatic? In the play’s final moments, when Willie struggles to climb the mound, is he trying to reach Winnie or the pistol?

One rather nice touch in "Happy Days" is that one of the required props is yet another bit of evidence, if one were needed at this point, attesting to Samuel Beckett’s enduring fondness for the music hall and for "low" comedy in general. The item in question is Winnie’s parasol, in the Jean Cocteau staging a delicate entity with a long stalk and a frilly flowering atop it. When, toward the end of the first act, it begins to omit smoke, threatening to burst into full flame, we are reminded that it constitutes the perfect vaudeville prop, which may well have been precisely where the writer, a lover of performance of all sorts, first encountered it.

Director Polgar’s handling of "Happy Days" is strong and clear, but the scenic and costume design by Mary Myers approaches genuine inspiration, particularly considering the budgetary limitations under which the Bouwerie Lane Theatre must operate.

One final note: the song which Winnie’s music box plays and which she hums toward the end of the evening is, of course, the primary waltz from Franz Lehar’s "The Merry Widow." According to Beckett biographer James Knowlson, the Dublin-born playwright had initially considered using "When Irish Eyes Are Smiling," but, in the manuscript for the third draft of the play, he shifted to Lehar, considering the waltz "more poignant and less geographically specific," a theory with which it would be difficult to argue.

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