It is perhaps too easy to forget how funny Samuel Beckett can be. Luckily, the folks at The Flea Theater and Beckett’s 1961 play Happy Days are here to remind us. It is a play full of bittersweet comedy that succeeds in pairing insightful social commentary with its absurdism. And in the hands of director Andrei Belgrader, along with two stellar performances from Brooke Adams and Tony Shalhoub, the Flea’s production captures all that makes this play and Beckett’s great mind so compelling.
Adams plays Winnie, who spends the entirety of the first act immobilized from the waist down, where she is buried (her predicament will only worsen in act two). Beckett being Beckett, we never do learn how Winnie found herself in this state, but we do know that she is determined to make the best of it: “Oh this is a happy day!” she says in a constant refrain. The play opens as a loud alarm wakes her with a smile and wonderment at another day of lovely weather before retrieving a toothbrush and toothpaste from her purse (within arm’s reach) and dutifully freshening up. From there on out Winnie’s task becomes filling her time: should she sing her song, or is it too early? Shall she tell the story of past visitors? Shall she try to rouse Willie? She’s not certain, but she does know that her unfortunate circumstances will not kill her spirit.
Shalhoub is Willie, Winnie’s only companion in their desolate locale. He is free to move about, but that motion does not come easy for him. On the rare occasions that he emerges from the hole in the back of that stage that he has made his domicile, his movements are labored and painful. We learn even less about Willie than we do about Winnie: perhaps he is here dutifully taking care of her (she seems appreciative of him, anyway); perhaps he has no other place to go. In any case, Willie certainly does not have the stalwart conviction to make the most of his everyday. His is a much more workaday existence than is Winnie’s.
Few playwrights get more out of less than does Beckett, and nobody matches him in the task of pairing humor and melancholy. The situation of Happy Days is ridiculous, and we laugh at the play’s invitation to do so. But we are also regularly reminded that Winnie’s predicament is awful, and we are asked to explore ourselves in her. The power of absurd theater, after all, is its ability to suggest that everyday existence is not quite as distant from the preposterous conditions of the play as it may seem. Belgrader’s production of Happy Days achieves that balance excellently.
It helps of course that the show is populated by two excellent performers. Winnie dominates the stage time, a duty that Adams fills expertly, taking us through a nuanced range of emotions. The Flea’s small space fosters intimacy between Winnie and the audience, which Adams capitalizes on to underscore how human and personal this seemingly otherworldly situation really is.
The size of Shalhoub’s part might be surprising for an actor with such a pedigree, but his brief stage time does not discount his considerable skill. Willie has few lines, but his expressiveness comes through in his physical struggle to move and manage his body. He is a character that reminds us how much Beckett admired Buster Keaton. Shalhoub succeeds impressively in capturing all the struggle and desire of Willie in the pure physicality of his performance.