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On Beckett

Theatre Review by David Hurst - October 4, 2018

Finn O'Sullivan and Bill Irwin
Photo by Carol Rosegg

If your reaction to the news the Irish Rep's season opener is a new piece exploring the works of Samuel Beckett is one of trepidation, be not afraid. Though your fear is certainly understandable, rest assured you're in good hands with On Beckett, Bill Irwin's thoroughly enjoyable new show about his intensely personal relationship with Beckett's writing. And at a tight 90-minutes it's just the right length, allowing audiences the time to immerse themselves in Beckett's existentialist musings without becoming mentally overloaded by his syntax and subtext.

It turns out Irwin is the ideal tour guide for a condensed introduction to this Irish writer who wrote almost exclusively in French. Irwin's had a lifelong obsession with Beckett's writings and his insights into and fascination with his unique language are infectious. As many of you know, Irwin is a clown who distills and interprets everything he does through a clown's eyes. This comes in handy for Beckett's absurdist ramblings that veer back and forth between vaudeville and stark realism. A Tony-winner for his clowning (Fool Moon) as well as his dramatic acting (Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf), Irwin gives a master class in both performing and interpreting Beckett that young actors and lovers of literature won't want to miss.

Irwin has also chosen the pieces in On Beckett carefully, including three of the prose pieces in Texts For Nothing, the novels The Unnamable and Watt, and Beckett's masterwork, Waiting For Godot, in which Irwin explains the controversy regarding the pronunciation of Godot for the uninitiated. His performances of these selections are riveting, but Irwin's genius, and much of the success of On Beckett, is the way he introduces each piece to the audience, as well as his recap after the selection is concluded. He demystifies what remains mysterious, yet you feel Irwin has opened a window into something that was previously unapproachable. Cleverly, Irwin has enlisted a young, junior high school student, Finn O'Sullivan, to join him for several passages from Waiting For Godot, a play Irwin has done many times including productions with Steve Martin and Robin Williams at Lincoln Center in1988, as well as the recent Roundabout revival with Nathan Lane in 2009. For his part, O'Sullivan is a wide-eyed, open-faced boy who embodies youthful enthusiasm and fearless intrepidness. When he confesses to Irwin that he hopes to someday be an actor, Irwin's embrace of him, and the smile that spreads across his face, brings the evening full circle in a way Beckett would have undoubtedly enjoyed.

On Beckett
Through November 4
The Irish Repertory Theatre, 132 West 22nd Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: OvationTix

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