By Samuel Beckett; Directed by Andrei Belgrader
Produced by the Theatre @ Boston Court
Off Off Broadway, Play Revival
Runs through 7.18.15
The Flea, 41 White Street
by Regina Robbins on 6.29.15
Tony Shalhoub and Brooke Adams in Happy Days. Photo by Joan Marcus.
BOTTOM LINE: A major work by Beckett, elegantly presented and very well acted.
The last time (which was also the first time) I saw Brooke Adams and Tony Shalhoub together on a New York stage was about 25 years ago, when they played opposite one another in the original Broadway production of The Heidi Chronicles. Shalhoub has gone on to greater fame than Adams, notably for his Emmy-winning role in the TV series Monk. But back in the day, Adams played the lead with Shalhoub in the supporting role. That’s the case once more in a very different show, Samuel Beckett's Happy Days, currently playing at the Flea in TriBeCa. We get a lot of her and just enough of him, to powerful effect. (Surprise!—they’ve been married since the early ‘90s.)
Playwright Beckett upped the ante on angst with Happy Days, first produced in 1961, eight years after his most famous work, Waiting for Godot. Like its predecessor, Happy Days is an absurdist piece, set in a bleak landscape from which escape seems impossible. Adams plays Winnie, a cheerful woman who is apparently stuck in a sand dune from the ribcage down. Shalhoub is Willie, her husband, who is not stuck but seems to suffer from an extreme case of fatigue and/or compromised mobility. Under a hot sun with no water or shade in sight, these two muddle through the day, doing what they can: Winnie brushes her teeth, puts on lipstick, talks and reminisces, while Willie reads a very old newspaper and looks at dirty pictures. For whatever reason, they’re trapped, and we in the audience are trapped with them.
Watching this is not easy. As Winnie rifles through her handbag and tries to stay positive, we can’t help putting ourselves in her place and imagining what we would do in such a hopeless—if insane—situation. The urge to flee is strong. However, we stay to watch Adams tackle one of the most challenging roles in the modern theatre, guided by veteran director Andrei Belgrader. Naturally, she never leaves the stage and only has use of her upper body. I remember thinking she was a fantastic actress when first I saw her on stage so many years ago; I am gratified to realize I was right.
While Adams is front and center for the entire play, Shalhoub is absent from the stage for long stretches of time; when he does appear, we frequently find ourselves looking at the back of his head. (He is also barely recognizable.) But he makes every line, grunt, and gesture count. That said, this piece succeeds or fails on the strength of the actress playing Winnie, and Adams is very strong indeed. Suggesting what Marilyn Monroe might have looked like had she lived into her sixties, with a smile so wide her face sometimes seems unable to contain it, she keeps us in our seats for the duration of this grim journey.
Having previously run in Boston and Los Angeles, this production of Happy Days is a welcome transplant to New York. Whether you sit back and revel in its weirdness or lean in and attempt to unravel its many mysteries, it’s an experience you’ll be hard pressed to shake off. That’s due in no small part to the splendid Adams and her co-star—on stage and in life.
(Happy Days plays at the Flea, 41 White Street, through July 18, 2015. Performances are Mondays through Fridays at 7 and Saturdays at 3. Tickets are $15-$70 and are available at theflea.org or by calling 212.352.3101.)