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Happy Days

Theatre Review by Howard Miller

Tony Shalhoub and Brooke Adams
Photo by Joan Marcus

If an optimist is someone who sees the glass as half full, then what hyperbole can we use to describe Winnie, the ├╝beroptimist whose glass runneth over in the face of appalling conditions in The Theatre @ Boston Court's production of Samuel Beckett's Happy Days, opening tonight at The Flea?

The production, which stars Brooke Adams as Winnie and her real-life husband Tony Shalhoub as Winnie's barely-with-it husband Willie, transforms Beckett's absurdist tale of existential affliction into one that is inhabited by very real people. They suffer, yes, but they manage to conjure up a semblance of comfort by clinging to the routines and rituals that marked their days before the unexplained catastrophic event that left Winnie buried up to her bosom in the earth and Willie crawling in and out of a hole that is his only shelter.

With an inordinate amount of time on her hands as she bakes in the blazing sun, Winnie stretches out those activities she is capable of doing, in order to fill the time between the piercingly loud bell that signals the start of her day and the one that marks its end. She spreads before her the touchstones of her existence that she has pulled from her large handbag: toothpaste, a toothbrush, a comb, a mirror, and a magnifying lens, among other items. She uses each in turn, all the while talking both to herself ("mustn't complain") and to Willie, who is behind her and out of sight, and who only occasionally puts in an appearance or grunts a word. For Winnie, each day that passes without something worse happening is "another happy day."

Ms. Adams and Mr. Shalhoub, along with their director Andrei Belgrader, have mounted this production previously in Boston and Los Angeles, and they have burnished every moment. Despite her near immobility (which worsens in Act II, when she has sunk further into the earth and is buried up to her neck), Ms. Adams uses every facial expression, her determined smile, her eyes (which, at one point, she sets spinning in their sockets), and her voice to bring Winnie fully to life.

Mr. Shalhoub, who speaks perhaps two dozen words during the entire play, also manages to humanize Willie, even if some of his own rituals are rather less palatable to observe. Yet even with his coarseness and her captivity, you sense there is a bond of love that remains between them. Indeed, there are moments that are unexpectedly touching, such as when Winnie plays her music box and Willie hums along for a bit.

These performances make the plight of Winnie and Willie seem to be less abstract then they might have once been perceived. The ringing bells that force Winnie to stay awake and alert also pull us beyond the realm of allegory. There is an intelligence behind the torment, as if the pair were undergoing some deliberately staged test of endurance. Certainly, the Biblical story of Job comes to mind, but we don't need a religious interpretation. All we have come to understand about terrorism, torture, and threats of global extinction are quite sufficient without bringing in God (or Godot). This production shows us that Happy Days is most decidedly a play for our time.

Happy Days
Through July 18
Flea Theater, 41 White Street between Broadway and Church Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: OvationTix

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