Four masters of language - the immediacy, the incisiveness, the poetry - all sharing the same stage. New York theatregoers should consider themselves fortunate for the very presence of Beckett/Albee at the Century Center - the combination of words as words (provided by playwrights Samuel Beckett and Edward Albee) with first-rate interpretation of them (from actors Marian Seldes and Brian Murray) to create a glorious chemical reaction. Well, most of the time, at any rate.
Director Lawrence Sacharow is the only real question mark of the evening. His staging of Albee's Counting the Ways (this production's entire second act) could hardly be fresher or funnier - he seems to intimately understand the rhythm of Albee's language and the many short scenes detailing the long marriage of He (Murray) and She (Seldes), and whether they really love each other or are just going through the motions. What creates love, and what sustains it? Sacharow seems determined to find the answer, and that makes us more interested in going along for the ride.
His staging of the three Beckett plays in the first act makes them harder to digest. They're already harsher and darker than the accompanying Albee work, dealing with the specters of death or infirmity, physical or vocal, and Sacharow is apparently interested in letting them speak for themselves. That noble goal works for Counting the Ways, but that's very much a lights up, dialogue, lights down, repeat play - inherently more audience friendly.
Only during the first of the Beckett pieces, Not I, did the audience at the performance I attended seem enraptured. Sacharow and lighting designer Michael Chybowski drew their focus directly and completely to the mouth of an old woman (Seldes), which let forth with an unending stream of words, a torrent of noise long dammed by silence. This woman, defined at this point only by her mouth, was captivating for the difficult life story she was revealing and how she was telling it (avoiding the use of the word I, to the consternation of Peter Kybart's silent and almost invisible auditor).
A Piece of Monologue receives less attention. Light, dark, and memory are characters as prominent as the old man facing death Murray plays, but the scene is staidly lit and poorly focused. Murray seems tiny even in this small theater, Catherine Zuber's light-colored set design - even though it's little more than a wall, a bed, and a lamp - threatening to swallow him whole. There's no impending sense of loss or darkness about the monologue, and Murray's tendency to overplay doesn't alleviate this.
Sound designers Mark Bennett and Ken Travis must be credited for what success Footfalls enjoys, as their unearthly echoes greeting Seldes's every step are quite effective. Seldes is fine as May, a woman caring after her infirm mother and focusing on the sounds of her mother's voice and her own footsteps in the empty house; her pain is brilliantly internalized. But again Sacharow and Chybowski are unwilling to support her, giving her indecisive lighting and having her mother (Delphi Harrington) visible behind the upstage scrim. There's no overwhelming sense of solitude here, so the impact of the play itself is subverted.
But the very words of Beckett and Albee cannot be; they still stand out. The use of short, distinctive phrases. The repetition. The devotion to detail, however small. These are symphonies of spoken words; it's tempting to want to close your eyes and let it wash over you like a tide. But with Seldes and Murray, whose bodies and voices seem to be designed for finding and expressing to the fullest scenes just such as these, that's not really a possibility.
You must see them, to experience their full performances to understand why sometimes words just aren't enough. As it turns out, Seldes and Murray are not quite enough to rescue Beckett/Albee from its difficult circumstances and take it to the next level, make it something more than a tribute to two truly fine playwrights. And, even when detoured by other matters, as they frequently are in this production, they can and do never completely disappoint.