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Theatre Journal 56.2 (2004) 306-308

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BECKETT/ALBEE. By Samuel Beckett and Edward Albee. Century Center for the Performing Arts, New York City. 23 October 2003.

When confronted with Samuel Beckett's short plays, you have two choices: either go along with their relentless minimalism or fight back. Marian Seldes and Brian Murray, under the direction of Lawrence Sacharow, clearly opt for the latter. Their presentation of three Beckett shorts along with one by Edward Albee at the Century Center for the Performing Arts suffers from the desire to make too much of too little. Beckett's Not I for example, is the willful reduction of theatre to nothing but a "Mouth" and an "Auditor." In response, this production uses all available means to squeeze as much spectacle out of the text as possible. The mouth is suspended halfway from the backdrop of a dark stage and casts a strange shadow that looks like a gigantic body; red lipstick, whitened face, a bright spotlight, and Seldes's commanding voice do their part in transforming this mouth into a full-fledged show. Beckett had conceived of Not I as a counter-point between a performer and an auditor, with the Auditor's gestures interrupting Mouth's ceaseless chatter. Symptomatically, for a production driven by an unbending will to theatre, Auditor has been turned into a barely visible shadow, leaving the scene to Mouth's operatic aria. Sacharow has pulled out all the stops, thereby drowning out Beckett's restless but muted rumination.

Not I sets the stage for two more short pieces, A Piece of Monologues and Footfalls, that are animated by similar desire of finding the limits of theatre. A Piece of Monologue features a meditation on existence that culminates in the line, "Birth was the death of him." The direction is too stuck on midcentury existentialism to hear that this is, among other things, a witty joke of the "life is life-threatening" sort. Murray, too, sounds only the harrowing tones, but not without turning them into a bravura piece of showmanship. He is visibly drawn into the plot of the monologue to the point where he begins to enact what he simultaneously narrates; the audience is drawn in with him and thus hooked on [End Page 306] what would otherwise be just another mouth on a stage telling a story. Then again, the first piece had shown that a mouth is all you need for an act of theatre to be engaged, and so we should not be surprised that once we have an accomplished actor, there's nothing left to be desired in the way of spectacle.

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Figure 1
Marian Seldes and Brian Murray in BECKETT/ALBEE. Photo: Carol Rosegg.

Except, perhaps, a second actor. From mouth to human being, we proceed to the luxury of having two speaking figures on the stage in the final Beckett short, Footfalls. Well, speaking of two figures may be stretching it, since one is barely visible, a face hidden behind gauze on the upper left corner of the backdrop. Footfalls does at least begin with a dialogue of sorts between what appear to be mother and daughter. Only the daughter has her feet on the ground, though, her footfalls resonating, as if in an echo chamber, across the stage. Which turns out to be a problem, for the mother hears and triumphantly counts every single one of them from her elevated hunter's blind. It makes sense, then, that the mother would dominate the second segment, alone voicing a dialogue between herself and the daughter, who sullenly continues her amplified cross-walk. Once more, the direction veers toward the postapocalyptic world in which Beckett's plays were set during the cold war. Slow-motion, hieratic gestures, ragged long dress and hair, echo-effect and evocative light, all this is too other-worldly to provide traction for a text that is, however indirectly, tied to the problems of everyday lifeā€”the footfalls are audible, Beckett tells us, because the mother never put carpet on the floor. It is Seldes who manages to distract...


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