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Comic Trip: Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen Clown Around With the Avant-Garde

‘Nothing happens,” wails Samuel Beckett’s Estragon. “Nobody comes, nobody goes. It’s awful.” Does Estragon have a point? Not much happens in either Beckett’s Waiting for Godot or in Harold Pinter’s No Man’s Land, the two plays now running in repertory at the Cort Theatre. Few people appear. Exits are equally scarce. But are they awful?

Well, under Sean Mathias’s direction, neither piece offers a particularly incisive interpretation of the script. And there are stretches in both when time hangs as heavy as Sisyphus’s boulder. Despite some invigorating line readings, these plays exist less to celebrate the words on the page and more to enable the mutual gratification of actors Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen, whose delight in performance infects the audience like a virus of sheer jubilation.

To see the two execute a jerky, stumbling waltz in Beckett’s play or guzzle limitless whiskey in Pinter’s is to witness two masterful actors in transports of joy. Their affection — for the stage, for each other — gentles Godot‘s harsher hardness. Less happily, it also softens No Man‘s menace.

Each actor plays a version of the same character across both plays, capitalizing on Stewart’s bluff decency and McKellen’s guileful intellect. Stewart’s men are more unruffled, less bedraggled than McKellen’s. They also seem more stable — until each play reveals the void yawning beneath this complacency. (Billy Crudup and Shuler Hensley offer tolerable support, though both seem barred from the McKellen/Stewart boys club.)

In No Man’s Land, Stewart, a wig nestled atop his head like a sleepy arctic fox, plays Hirst, a successful poet who has invited McKellen’s impecunious and unsavory Spooner home for a drink. Round walls encircle Hirst’s study, giving it the look of an arena or prison. It’s unclear what has drawn the two men together. Is it power? Is it sex? Have the two met before?

No Man’s Land is a troubling play about aging and infirmity. It has its lighter moments, like a lavishly dirty speech about cricket and another about floral arrangements. But it can and should produce a profoundly destabilizing effect, as certainties melt away like ice in a scotch glass. Yet the Cort audience greeted even the most frightening lines with titters — a response the actors seem to encourage, much like the Betrayal revival running a few blocks away. The laughter leaches the play of its threat and its power.

More successful is Godot, which McKellen and Stewart previously mounted in London. Never has the relationship between tramps Didi and Gogo seemed so palpably and poignantly loving. This isn’t a queer reading of the script — though McKellen apes a runway model’s waggling walk — but rather one that speaks to an enduring and vital friendship that sustains the men throughout their privations.

Here, the emphasis on comedy reaps better and deeper rewards. The set design posits Didi and Gogo as survivors of a destroyed music hall and the production emphasizes the play’s vaudeville roots with its half-forgotten songs, ungainly dances, and unfinished jokes. Though amusing, these repeated gags come to remind us, chillingly, that if repetition is the source of comedy, it is also a consequence of trauma.

It’s in these moments, when laughter yields to disquiet, that Beckett’s play works best. It’s awful, just like Estragon says. In the best possible way.

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Beckett’s Odd Comedy is on Display in All That Fall

Samuel Beckett: comic genius? Sure. Beckett’s plays are all but bereft of love, hope, succor. They are also very funny. Think of Didi and Gogo’s badinage, Winnie’s nattering, Krapp’s bananas. Beckett’s odd comedy is perhaps most blatant in All That Fall, a radio play now revived at 59E59 under the direction of Trevor Nunn.

The play can be seen as Beckett’s attempt to crowd in as many sound effects as possible — country road, cart horse, bicycle bell, several chickens. More particularly, it is the story of the walk Mrs. Rooney (Eileen Atkins) takes to fetch her blind husband (Michael Gambon) back from the train station. Here, the pessimism is so absolute and unrelieved that it becomes contrarily blithe. Witness Mrs. Rooney’s self-description: “a hysterical old hag I know, destroyed with sorrow and pining and gentility and churchgoing and fat and rheumatism and childlessness.”

Nunn’s production, which apes its radio origins with plentiful microphones, clutched scripts, and no set to speak of, adopts a doleful pace. He allows the actors to make a meal of each line — no appetizer, no dessert, just morose main courses. And yet, the cruel comedy remains. In a world this sore and hard, what else can you do but laugh?

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All That Fall: Into Your Rockers, Folks

Radio plays are a strange genre: They fracture theatrical experience, separating seeing from hearing, transmitting to a dispersed audience who share the event in time but not space. Samuel Beckett loved to experiment with the peculiarities of different media, and his All That Fall, written for the BBC in the 1950s, has loads of fun with the form while telling a typically ruthless story of decay and sudden death. Foley sound-effects abound; barnyard animals—voiced by actors—make their characteristic noises.

Part art installation, part listening party, Irish experimental theater troupe Pan Pan’s new actor-less staging of All That Fall—directed by Gavin Quinn, broadcasting at BAM this week—restores communal hearing to the piece. Seated in rocking chairs arranged akimbo around a large room—a sly nod to Beckett’s bleak chair-centric play Rockaby, perhaps—we attend to a digital recording of the play, while a fluctuating bank of floodlights provides spare visual accompaniment. The lighting—casting yellow glows ranging from sunny to jaundiced, in stripes, geometric shapes, and overwhelming bursts—sometimes illustrates sound effects, sometimes reaches for abstraction. Above our heads, constellations of hanging lightbulbs warm and wane—it’s like a Beckett planetarium.

A mordant fable of rural grotesquerie, All That Fall turns moldering Mrs. Rooney’s mishap-ridden journey to the train station to pick up her equally decrepit husband, and their grousing talk as they trudge home, into a chilly allegory of each living being’s abject hike toward death—full of sudden interruptions and embarrassing gaffes. (The grim proceedings are leavened by Beckett’s desert-dry jokes, and cameos by various odd Irish types.) As the dotards dodder back, we learn that the train’s lateness was due to a horrific accident, and we’re left wondering whether Mr. Rooney—not a big fan of humanity—may have had something to do with it.

Without live performers, we’re the ones who make this a theatrical occasion: In the half-dark room, we’re all part of the scenery. And it’s fascinating to watch your fellow listeners, haloed by ambient light, hang on Beckett’s words—many of which are about the terrible effects of time on the human body—or ponder his vast silences. The production toys with the borders between inside and outside the mind: As the wry voices sound in the gloom, it’s sometimes as if we’re inside the characters’ heads, or they’re inside ours.

In the piece’s final seconds, as the soundtrack fades away, the lights suddenly flare up—dazzling our resting eyes. In Beckett’s universe, destiny and justice are blind—and, for a moment, so are we.

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John Hurt Plays Krapp’s Last Tape

John Hurt’s shoes squeak—extravagantly, appallingly—protesting every step he takes around the BAM Harvey stage. There, in a single sound effect, is the catastrophe and delight of Samuel Beckett’s one-act Krapp’s Last Tape. In Hurt’s expert, unadorned rendition, directed by the Gate Theatre’s Michael Colgan, Krapp’s is a tragedy never allowed to become fully tragic, the play’s heartbreak always illuminated and undercut by the mundane, the human, the ridiculous—a treacherous banana peel, disloyal shoes.

On the occasion of his 69th birthday, Krapp sits down to record a summary of the past year and to listen to one from long ago. Seated behind a reel-to-reel recorder, illumined by a single lamp, Hurt is styled in Beckett drag—that raddled face, that gray-white quiff—rendering the autobiographical aspects of the play more than usually apparent. Krapp’s is a stunted life, seemingly devoid of pleasure. He describes Earth as a “muckball,” the waning year as “the sour cud and the iron stool.” But like Hamm, like Winnie, like Didi and Gogo, he has his small enjoyments—his drink, his bananas, his pronunciation of the word “spool,” this yearly ritual of recording.

Of course, these tapes serve less as an accretion or conviction of Krapp’s identity than to remind him how much of himself he has lost. As Krapp reads the brief description of the reel he plans to listen back to, he puzzles over the line “the black ball.” Yet on the tape he says of that same object, “I shall feel it, in my hand, until my dying day.” Similarly, when the word “viduity” sounds, Krapp has to halt the tape and bring out the dictionary. Of course, while his younger self may have had a better memory, he likely wasn’t any happier, describing the previous 12 months as “a year of profound gloom and indulgence.”

Inhabiting the wasted, “wearish” man, Hurt plunges into the role so completely that at times you might forget you’re watching an actor at all. The trembling of his hands, the weakness of his legs, those jowls—these qualities seem too lived, too alive to be merely acted. But the curtain call reminds you that acted they are. In the meantime, collapsed at his desk, Hurt disappears and only Krapp remains: a bare, forked animal whose words and recordings have all run out.

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Fragments Leaves Beckett in Pieces

Peter Brook and Samuel Beckett ought to be a match made in minimalist heaven. Beckett, always attracted by the rigorous writerly discipline demanded by short-form plays, spent most of his late career distilling complex visions to indelible stage images, delivered in ever-more compact forms. Brook, in his recent work, has also favored starkness and simplicity: bare settings, deceptively plain compositions.

Given this potential, Fragments—a haphazardly assembled collection of five Beckett shorts directed by Brook and collaborator MarieHélène Estienne, now running at the Baryshnikov Art Center—comes as an unpleasant surprise. True, the stage is suitably spare—a few furnishings scattered around a bare platform. But that’s where the affinity between director and playwright ends. Instead, we get the wrong kind of simplicity: In search of a more uplifting Beckett, Brook tinkers with the plays, diluting their fierce intelligence. Fragments is Beckett for People Who Can’t Handle Beckett.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m no purist. Though Beckett himself was notoriously persnickety about the absolute necessity of performing his plays, with their exacting stage directions, precisely as written, I can certainly imagine cases in which a director might depart from the pattern and still achieve artistic success (Paul Chan’s Katrina-themed Godot comes to mind). But since Beckett’s texts, particularly the short ones, are not just scripts providing dialogue and suggested moves, but meticulously plotted blueprints for the total theatrical event, you better take the design of the original into account before you start knocking down walls, lest the whole edifice collapse around you. Fulfilling its title, Fragments knocks its plays to bits—and not in the revealing, deconstructive way.

Brook and Co.’s rendition of Rockaby, one of Beckett’s last plays, and one of his most unsparing, is an object lesson in thoughtless demolition. In Beckett’s original, an old crone hunches in a rocking chair with a life of its own, listening intently to a recording of her own voice as she obsessively recounts a circling story of slow withdrawal from the world outside. The metronome-like movement of the chair measures her dwindling life with mechanical precision, suggesting other faltering rhythms—her pulse, her breath. When it stops, we know she’s stopped. Meanwhile, the diminishing repetitions of the text show a mind slowly crumpling inwards and winding down to nullity—consciousness on the edge of dissolution. Beyond doubt, Rockaby is one of Beckett’s most pitiless creations (one of its last lines is “Fuck life”)—but why stage it if you can’t bring yourself to confront it head on?

Brook clearly couldn’t. He removes the self-rocking chair, the voiceover, and the dialogue between past and present selves, leaving performer Kathryn Hunter chirping the text while perched on a plain seat—which she promptly gets up from, doing a little pointless pantomime (she rocks the chair) and spoiling the play’s dynamics, to no discernible interpretive purpose. It’s as if Brook decided Godot should show up after all. Throughout, Hunter’s hiccupping, sing-song delivery makes nonsense of the play’s precise, harsh meter, dismissing Beckett’s stark symbolic figure as a dotty dowager, shrugging apologetically to the audience for repeating herself—symbolism is just senility. (Hunter’s desultory performance of Neither, a haunting prose-poem, later in the evening is a non-event—pablum).

None of Brook’s other revisions are quite as damaging, but all seem similarly designed to render Beckett more innocuous, amplifying vaudeville aspects at the expense of harsher truths. All the playlets get cheered up and flattened out. Jos Houben and Marcello Magni, the additional two members of the three-performer ensemble, are gifted physical comedians—but since they’re both of the waggish, cutesy school of clown, incapable of delivering the frayed mordancy required of Beckett’s vagrants, their virtuosity ends up detrimental to the production.

This becomes especially clear as they enact the can’t-live-with-him-can’t live-without-him fable of Rough for Theatre I, an early work that looks like a sketch for Endgame. A one-legged tramp in a wheeled cart meets a blind tramp sawing at a fiddle. They make a brief alliance, each providing the other with what he lacks—the blind leading the lame; the lame seeing for the sightless. But their codependence quickly becomes mutual torment. They can’t bear each other, and can’t bear to be alone. Adept at the lazzi, but inattentive to the language, the duo stage the piece’s pitching between attraction and repulsion as sitcom squabbling.

Similarly, the pair performs the comic choreographies of Act Without Words II, a mostly soundless mime piece, with aplomb, while also pithing it of its larger implications. In the play, two scruffy gents with opposing life philosophies get prodded awake from the giant trash bags they sleep in to display their individual coping mechanisms while stepping through time-lapse versions of a day’s numbing routine. One, a religious fellow, prays and broods at each fresh setback (his breakfast carrot tastes gross; his trousers are hard to step into); the other, brisk, cheerful and godless, just gets on with it. In Beckett’s pragmatic view, those with higher expectations of life’s purposes only get more disappointed, the importance of inevitable setbacks enlarged by the satisfying illusion of cosmic injustice.

Here, though, the brooder expresses his exasperation at God’s absence with a wheezy little sigh—his existential sadness is scruffy-wuffy cartoon petulance. The motto of Brook’s version is something like: Some folks are lovably cranky, and some people are sprightly and sunny! And Brook can’t resist tweaking the ending: During his final bout of divine supplication, grumpy suddenly perks up, a brief smile lighting his face—Godot arrives once again.

Whatever else you might say about it, Come and Go—another late play, and the final piece on the bill—is not a Monty Python-esque sketch about men dressed up as funny old ladies being bitchy to each other. The play’s reunion of three former schoolmates, now elderly, in the place where they used to play as children—still cruel and kind to each other in the same ways they were decades before—is an eerie parable about the ways time does and doesn’t change us, for worse and better. But with the two male members of the company in biddy-drag, and Hunter lolling her eyes and acting the geezer, we get a rest-home sequel to Mean Girls, all the play’s poignancies lost amid mugging and bargain-basement laughs.

In his program note, Brook praises Beckett as a dauntless artist who peered into the “filthy abyss of human existence” while rejecting “pious consolations” in his “constant, aching search for meaning.” Too bad Brook and his collaborators weren’t equally brave—instead, they’ve turned their backs on the hard-won results of Beckett’s agonizing search to whip up an evening of neutered, fluffy ersatz Beckett, riddled with pious consolations and artistic shortcuts. No one who loves the work of theater’s most uncompromising mind should have to stomach this shoddily made and startlingly amateurish production.

If Peter Brook’s name wasn’t on it, it’s unlikely Fragments would be anywhere near New York at all.

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Secret Honor

Dir. Robert Altman (1984).
Perhaps the funniest of all Nixon movies, as well as a worthy knockoff of Samuel Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape, Robert Altman’s filmed version of Donald Freed and Arnold M. Stone’s one-character play is a self-proclaimed “political myth.” Surrounded by monitors and hitting the Chivas, the post-Watergate Nixon (Philip Baker Hall) engages in a frantic, free-associative monologue—a ranting recapitulation of Nixon’s entire career, addressed to a portrait of Henry Kissinger. The film is basically one long compelling expletive.

Fri., July 23, 9:30 p.m., 2010

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Will Ryman Builds a Garden That Beckett Might Love

Will Ryman’s Bowery studio lies just down the street from a 16-story luxury condo complex, the New Museum, and the Sunshine Hotel, one of the city’s last remaining flophouses. The block is a kind of ground zero for Lower Manhattan gentrification — the contrast between wealth and poverty at its most vivid — and seems to have influenced the giant urban rose garden that fills Ryman’s studio. One hundred plaster roses, some of them seven feet tall, sit atop a small forest of twisting steel stems, all duly thorned and painted chlorophyll-green. Handmade and vastly oversize detritus surrounds them: pizza crusts, gum wrappers, cigarette butts, half-eaten hot dogs, a bag of Wise potato chips. Together, they conjure up a rat’s-eye view of a seedy metropolitan flowerbed, forcing one to confront the grime and neglect that persist in spite of the city’s efforts to rejuvenate the landscape.

Ryman — the 39-year-old sculptor whose installation “A New Beginning” is on view at Chelsea’s Marlborough Gallery through October 10 — has been observing the city’s rapidly changing scenery since birth. A big, friendly, soft-spoken guy with spiky hair and a goatee, he hails from a prominent New York art family: His father is the minimalist artist Robert Ryman, best known for his all-white paintings, and his mother, Merrill Wagner, is a celebrated painter of abstractions on steel. As a child, he crawled on legendary sculptures by Tom Doyle, Carl Andre, and Sol LeWitt that lay around his parents’ Greenwich Village apartment. Explaining the gaps in his knowledge of art history, he says, “I grew up around people making art, not studying it.”

Ryman came to sculpture late, and through the back door. In lieu of college, he took playwriting classes at local theater companies, and began familiarizing himself with absurdist writers like Samuel Beckett and Eugene Ionesco. The idea that life is absurd and inherently without meaning, unless one dedicates oneself to the common good, appealed to him. He spent the next 12 years writing short plays that explored this worldview.

His relationship with the theater was strained from the start, however. “My playwriting teachers had these strict rules for plays,” he says, as we step across the dirt-colored metal tiles anchoring each flower to the ground. “If there’s a gun onstage, they said, it has to go off — a phone, it has to ring. There’s gotta be a plot turn on page 27, and again on page 77, otherwise it’s not a script.” He felt less adept at structuring plotlines, he says, than “just spitting out situations.”

Actors posed a problem as well. He felt that the attempt to communicate inner life through shouting and dramatic gesturing sacrificed the reality of human behavior. The absurdity of theater, in other words, often overpowered the absurdity-of-life aesthetic he was going for. His 10-minute play The Encounter, which debuted at the Trilogy Theater in 1999, concerned two drunks in a field who see something in the sky but can’t tell what it is. “The actors were either screaming or forgetting their lines,” Ryman says, “and the fake boulder on stage looked like a big sponge.” He laughs. “Basically, I wanted to do away with the script, the actors, the director, knock down the fourth wall, and just create a world for people to exist in.”

Which is what he did in 2003. In his newly acquired studio, Ryman erected 10 different “sets,” and invited everyone he knew over to hang out. One set, titled The Pit, was an assortment of clay-colored papier-mâché figures standing at the bottom of a sealed white room, looking helplessly up. A well-known art dealer was in attendance, and she requested The Pit for her summer show. To Ryman’s astonishment, the piece was eventually chosen for P.S.1’s Greater New York Show in 2005. “I’d always wanted to sculpt how my characters felt, to allow the scenery to tell the story,” he says. “I realized I’d been a sculptor trying for years to write plays.”

Those years have obviously influenced his art. The industrial flowers at Marlborough have about them the paradoxical pinch of a Beckett sentence: happy and sad at once, embodying the idea articulated in Endgame that “Nothing is funnier than unhappiness.” Cheerful-seeming from a distance, the roses make no attempt to disguise their ragged consistency up close: Rebar pokes through the aluminum mesh petals, which are loosely bound together with epoxy resin and hastily painted with flat pinks and reds. A look inside reveals not a spiral of smooth folds, but what look like torn and crumpled cardboard boxes. It’s as if the flowers, full of self-loathing over their true identity, have come to identify with the trash beside them. Which is funny, in a depressing sort of way.

“A New Beginning” is, as the name suggests, a departure from Ryman’s previous work, most notably for its lack of humanoid figures. The Bed, part of the “Tuesday Afternoon” show at Marlborough in 2007, featured a 26-foot-long papier-mâché man lying half-asleep in bed, his posture suggesting someone enduring, but also slightly enjoying, a bad hangover. The Sidewalk, from the same show, conceived a number of stoic pedestrians — a watch dealer, a jogger, a homeless man — lost in (or incapable of) thought amid the chaos of city life. In “A New Beginning,” the viewer becomes the installation’s main character, responsible for determining his or her own role in this bizarre, hallucinatory garden.

When I visit Ryman at Marlborough days before the opening, the arrangement of the pieces is different from how it was at his studio: The flowers are clustered around the gallery’s white columns, and the litter more neatly arranged beneath the overhanging petals. “They didn’t want people stepping on the sculptures,” he explains. He understands, of course, but having to compromise the reality of the garden irks him a bit. Later, he takes out his laptop and shows me a digital model of the 30-foot stainless-steel roses he wants to install along the medians between 50th and 57th streets on Park Avenue. The Parks Commission, envisioning the uplifting effect, is enthusiastic, he says.

“I was thinking of putting a crushed Coke can or cigarette butt inside a few of the flowers,” Ryman adds, grinning, “so, you know, only people in the offices above can see them.”

‘A New Beginning,’ through October 10, at Marlborough Chelsea, 545 West 25th Street, marlboroughgallery.com

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From the Archives…The Voice Reviews Edward Albee’s The Zoo Story and Samuel Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape, 1960

“KRAPP’S LAST TAPE,” by Samuel Beckett, and “THE ZOO STORY,” by Edward Albee, both presented by H.B. Lutz, Richard Barr, and Harry Joe Brown, Jr., at the Provincetown Playhouse. The Beckett directed by Alan Schneider, the Albee by Milton Katselas.

Two short, disparate works have been jammed together to make a fascinating single evening of theatre at the Provincetown Playhouse. I happen to think that the pieces are presented in the wrong order; I would prefer the lyrical affirmations of Samuel Beckett to come after, not before, the hostilities and negations of young Edward Albee, but this is a matter of philosophy and personal taste which may be ignored. I shall, however, have to review “Krapp’s Last Tape” and “The Zoo Story” as distinct and opposing entities, even though they share in common the form and voltage of the brief tour de force.

Toward Love

“Krapp’s Last Tape” is almost certainly the most amazing piece of “incidental” writing of the decade. In one and the same pungent breath it is a comment on time past, passing, and to come; on the tinny mechanization of the age and the yet unquenchable wellsprings of the heart; on the anal desiccation and sterilization of all feelings or response in modern man, and his nevertheless immutable thrust toward love. One thinks of the greatest line that Dylan Thomas, or maybe anyone, ever wrote: “The force that through the green fuse drives the flower”—and then to find the same thing said by Samuel Beckett through the grotesqueries of a ludicrous skit that also involves the slipping of an aged gentleman upon a banana peel and the deliberate selection for deus ex machina of that twentieth-century monkey-toy to end all monkey-toys, the Stereo Tape Cartridge Player Recorder courtesy (in this instance) RCA Victor!

But to the play. It has only one character, old man Krapp, shuffling around before his desk, gourmandizing on his bananas, fidget-fingering through his dusty ledgers, selecting his dusty tapes, putting them on the machine, pressing the switch, listening to his own voice of 30 years earlier surge forth to reconstruct other days when he was already old and dry before his time, other days and other memories, memories of romantic and carnal love on some lazy distant afternoon—distant even then (or rather now, for “then” is now in “Krapp’s Last Tape”)—and presently rushing the machine along to get it to hurry up to the stunningly written “hot” passages, the long since vanished afternoon, the girl, the drifting boat, the girl’s eyes slitting against the sun, the faint scratch of her bare thigh; then stabbing the switch off and mumbling his present relieved scorn at these mercifully dead-and-buried idiocies of the fallible flesh; then suddenly stabbing it back on and scrabbling, scrabbling at the reels to back them up just once again to that single, flickering, aching memorialization of proximate youth, proximate life—and clutching, clutching the mechanical little voice-box in a final heartrending lover’s embrace of all that is or ever was worth having, saving, or losing in this world…

It is, as you can imagine, no easy piece to stage; and the performance by Donald Davis as Krapp and the staging in every minute particular by Alan Schneider—not least the phenomenal synchronization of living actor and dead voice—is inspired, inspirited, perfect: the first full realization in America of a work by Samuel Beckett. Since “Endgame” I have had strong private reservations about Mr. Schneider’s fitness to direct Beckett. I now publicly abandon them.


I AM IN MY best Brooks Brothers suit, sitting alone on a bench on the Fifth Avenue side of Central Park, not too many blocks away from my apartment, my wife, my children, my cats, my parakeets; I am killing part of a Sunday morning by browsing through a favorite book; suddenly a rabid young psychotic strides up to me where I sit, forces himself upon me, asks me all sorts of humiliating questions about myself, my family, my way of life; the more he probes, the less he indicates he thinks of me, and of our common capacity to break down the barriers of intercommunication—for no man should be an island, nicht wahr?—and in the end he baits me into fighting with him, physically, for the rights to the bench, until at last I allow him to murder himself on the knife, his own knife, which he has made me take in hand. Then we communicate, for murder is communication, nicht wahr? We have reached the only, and violent, means of communication between sexes (sorry, one sex), races, classes, mental states, moral sophistications, hips and squares. Or have we? And why should I have allowed this mad and knowing aggressor to force himself upon me? Why should I? The answer is I should not: I should have better sense. And in “real life,” believe me, I should; and so, believe me, would most of you; and you wouldn’t worry about the failure of all human intercommunication on that account. Maybe on other accounts. Maybe in the way Samuel Beckett might worry.

The above is somewhat of a précis of the plot of “The Zoo Story,” the contribution to the Provincetown double-bill of a young Villager, and comer, named Edward Albee. He knows how to handle a situation and dialogue and bring you up deftly to the edge of your seat. Whether he has anything less sick than this to say remains to be seen.

The production of “The Zoo Story” is on a par with that of “Krapp’s Last Tape.” William Daniels and George Maharis are sharp, subtle, and excellently “right” for their roles of Ivy League type and Society’s Scourge. The direction of Milton Katselas helps them in every way. In sum, an evening to jostle the nerve-ends and thank God for off-Broadway’s non-conformism.

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Chinese Government-Condemned The Bus Stop at Sanford Meisner Theatre

We New Yorkers take profound delight in disparaging the MTA, but however bungled our transport, none of us has ever spent years waiting for a bus. That lengthy delay afflicts eight citizens in Gao Xingjian’s 1983 play, The Bus Stop, which the Chinese government condemned as “spiritual pollution.” As the years roll past, those standing in line debate the best course of action: return, walk on, or continue to wait.

The play is less than scintillating, though that may accord to Shiao-Ling Yu’s translation or Theatre Han’s production, directed by Samantha Shechtman. Some of the actors seem underrehearsed and unsure as to whether they’re embodying stereotypes or playing fully realized characters. Fear of censorship perhaps led Gao to prefer generalisms and metaphor—the symbolism of that absent bus comes to seem limited and strained. However, the few genuinely Chinese details are welcome, as when one character insults another, saying, “Go jump in a river and let the turtles eat you.” Though written in homage to Samuel Beckett, the play displays some signal differences, particularly its belief in the human capacity for change. As in Waiting for Godot, several characters toward the play’s end call out, “Let’s go.” But here, they do!

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William Faulkner Enters the Collapsable Hole Garage in Chuck.Chuck.Chuck.

Samuel Beckett once wrote: “I don’t like gloom to lighten, there is something shady about it.” He wouldn’t be disappointed with Chuck.Chuck.Chuck., Immediate Medium’s multimedia adaptation of Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, in which the bumpkinly Bundrens haul their deceased matriarch to Jefferson, Mississippi, for burial. Like Faulkner’s prose, Chuck.Chuck.Chuck. is cold, murky, relentless, and occasionally thrilling. The production doesn’t quite manage to enact the maze of crossed subjectivities that the novel is famous for, but J.J. Lind, deftly directing, arranges the next best thing, staging the palpable disconnect between the family members, who grieve (or fail to) on completely different planes. The gaps between them serve as a kind of psychic space in an otherwise claustrophobic performance, whose moving center of gravity, the coffined body, sucks all the characters into its decay. Unusual dance numbers, set to live folk music, add emotional punch. Their choreographer, Liz Vacco, also steals the show as Vardaman Bundren, the young son whose neurotic stammering becomes the centerpiece of the play’s meditation on death.