nytheatre.com review by Matt Freeman
February 11, 2005
There is a moment in Happy Days that should resound: the moment Winnie realizes the audience is watching her. It’s a quiet moment, not the crux of the play. She simply says, “I feel like there are eyes on me.” It is the only time she is not speaking to her absurdly distant husband, Willie. It is the one moment in Happy Days that Samuel Beckett turns to the audience and winks.
This is one of the many moments that fall flat in the Worth Street Theater Company’s current production, now on at Classic Stage Company. This is because, as Winnie, famous queer comic Lea DeLaria never gives us the slightest impression she’s anywhere but on a stage, begging us to laugh at her raised eyebrows, funny voices, and ceaseless energy. She works against the text as hard as she possibly can, her eyes firmly on entertaining us. It is because of this that she fails with an impressive amount of gusto.
Happy Days features a middle-aged woman, Winnie, buried up to her waist—and then neck—in sand. It is implied strongly that the Earth is barren of much life, and that she and Willie are resigned to living out what remains of their days within their limitations. Winnie speaks almost the entire text of the play. She wonders what she will do when words fail her, as they always do, writes Beckett. She enacts her rituals, her text economical, constructed as an exercise in futility. But throughout, she is given moments of profound beauty and yes, comic lines that ring with an ache of truth. “Oh earth,” she says, “You old extinguisher.”
Watching DeLaria perform this delicate text is like watching the Genie from Disney’s Aladdin perform Krapp’s Last Tape. She bellows lines that cry out to be whispered, she adds funny voices to long speeches, rushes through pauses and gesticulates wildly as if she’s drawing the audience a map to each joke. When there is no punch line or gag inherent in the text, she simply invents one. In the second act, when Winnie is buried up to her neck, there is only DeLaria’s head exposed. She manages to continue to overact under these circumstances, a feat that I found almost deserved a round of applause. Almost.
It’s frustrating for a Beckett-lover (and there are many of us) to see this work overrun by an artist with an agenda beyond illuminating an already difficult text. Happy Days has as many levels as can be found in a modern play. An exploration of marriage can be found here. A dissemination of how human beings find meaning within their limitations. A high stakes struggle for at least spiritual survival in a mundane and bleak landscape. Winnie is, like many of Beckett’s main characters, us. She speaks for the audience, for us. When she is larger than we are, a show-woman, she loses our sympathy and, in her impossible situation, our belief in her dilemma.
That’s not to say DeLaria is completely at fault. In fact, there are a few moments when she rests and simply speaks the text, exhausted, and becomes utterly compelling. It would have been a pleasure to see more of this. Instead, she finds herself unleashed and riffing.
For his part, as Willie, David Greenspan is clearly incredibly skilled, but misdirected in much the same way. In the first act, his work is detailed and specific, his voice ringing out the comedy of each of his few and poignant lines. Then, in the second half, he is reduced to a long comedy routine, near the play’s end, and the action jerks to a screeching halt as we wait for him to stop the haranguing and get to the heart of the matter.
Much of the responsibility for this falls on the shoulders of director Jeff Cohen. Cohen seems to be after the laughs in his version. There is an academic defense for this: much of Beckett’s work maps out silent movie or vaudeville routines. He is a comic writer in many ways, so it's the right instinct not to leave Happy Days in the throes of despair, letting Winnie languish in the pauses and enact only the hopelessness of her situation. The play is called, after all, Happy Days. Cohen paints some very pretty pictures, and takes a lot of creative license that sexes the play up a bit. But he overreaches, I fear, with the broad humor, particularly when such deft comic performers could have underplayed so beautifully. Where comedy could serve to highlight and enable the humanity of this bold play, Cohen’s version gives DeLaria wide berth, and she gets between the audience and this classic text.
While it’s always valuable and I would never discourage an audience from experiencing Beckett live (even a misfire performed is more powerful than a sit-down reading), Beckett’s work is a tightrope walk, and failure is more common than success. Much like Shakespeare. In Beckett, though, there are so few elements that a single actor or choice can take away most of the pleasures. So it is with this production, sadly. In Happy Days, Beckett quotes Shakespeare’s famous line: “Laughing wild amid severest woe.” This production seems stuck in the laugh, and certainly gets wild; but there is little evidence of the “severest woe” that might make such laughter necessary.