Few would accuse existentialist playwright Samuel Beckett of writing cartoons, but after seeing the Worth Street Theater Company production of Happy Days, you might wonder. Any Beckett play has a built-in problem with accessibility, and if this production's solutions are far from ideal, even the most two-dimensional tellings can sometimes find unexpected depth.
The key word is "sometimes," which won't satisfy die-hard Beckett fans. Then again, exactly how many die-hard Beckett fans will be flocking to the Classic Stage Company to see Lea DeLaria and David Greenspan ply their trade in this Happy Days? One must feel for the production's director, Jeff Cohen, who undoubtedly knew what he was getting into: Casting two quintessential examples of contemporary "downtown" performers in a play like this leaves no room for error.
It also leaves little room for the personalities on which they've built their careers, and attempts to allow them to be themselves are mostly what sabotage this two-hour meditation on modern man-woman relations. After all, when the lights go up at the start of the show and Winnie (DeLaria), the female half of the play's central husband-wife pairing, is quite literally buried up to her waist in debris, you're not supposed to be glad about it.
Within minutes of the first act beginning, it's clear that even set designer David P. Gordon's enormous pile of crushed-cinderblock refuse can't contain DeLaria completely. Sunny of spirit, full of energy, and exasperated in delivery, she crushingly caresses every word while pondering the meaning of the contents of the large bag that's the only object within her reach. Winnie's toothbrush, parasol, and even pistol receive roughly equal treatment from DeLaria.
She's an unstoppable bulldozer, true, but you always feel as though someone's at the wheel; her performance is too calculated to be accidental. Watching and listening to her rustle around in her bag, you can all but hear DeLaria counting the number of beats to fill up. During the brief moments when Greenspan's ancient, rat-like Willie communicates with Winnie through a series of strained grunts and relieved sighs of various interminable lengths, however annoying the experience is, it's also rhythmic and musical.
Someone was obviously conducting all this. One assumes it was Cohen, yet it's impossible to tell for sure: One would hope that a director so intimately involved as to orchestrate everything like a symphony would offer greater assistance to his at-sea actors when they're tackling a play this notoriously impenetrable. Still, a director of Happy Days can only do so much: Letting the play, essentially a two-hour monologue for Winnie, become as much about the person playing her as what she's saying is unavoidable, even desirable to a certain degree.
But that requires a Winnie in her ideal element, and DeLaria's not. She's an actress, yes, but also a down-and-dirty comedian and singer, not a scrupulously detailed Beckettian performer. Okay, most people aren't, but most people don't star in Happy Days. Looking at DeLaria, costumed by Kim Gill as a '60s hausfrau, one easily senses Cohen's interest in examining shifting expectations of gender and sexuality in the 20th century, but as executed here, the real depth of the idea is almost never explored.
It doesn't help that Greenspan looks and sounds like Rich Uncle Pennybags, who's graced Monopoly boxes for decades, or that his own utterances are more varied than DeLaria's only because they seem to mimic a greater variety of animals being flattened by trucks. Happy Days seldom lives or dies by its Willie; the character's stage time can best be measured in seconds. Winnie is central and unavoidable.
For most of the lengthy first act, DeLaria is so obsessed with stage business and just spitting out her lines that Winnie only very rarely makes an appearance. (It seems that she, and not DeLaria, is moved to tears by the wistful tinkling of a musical box.) Unsurprisingly, when the second act rolls around and Winnie is buried up to her neck, DeLaria, forced to do less, connects to her character with a sensitivity and quiet command that makes you sit up and take notice. It's in these few moments of razor-sharp precision that you see what this Happy Days might have been.
More representative of the production as a whole was when, near the end of the performance I attended, a gentleman near the rear of the audience began snoring disruptively, only to be awakened by DeLaria shouting a line at the top of her lungs. She then threw off a thoroughly Beckettian line of explanation to the rest of the delighted (and now wide-awake) audience, providing the performance's biggest laugh and the most accurate sense of the power she's capable of bringing to her work under the best of circumstances.
Waking up sleeping audience members is right up her alley. Keeping Happy Days lively enough to prevent them from nodding off in the first place is not yet within her grasp.
Worth Street Theater Company & Classic Stage Company