The performance begins in a trash can. Ushers direct you to pick up a crumpled piece of paper (the show's program) from within it before entering the theater. The gimmick is both clever and pretentious, and perfectly sets the mood for The Complete Lost Works of Samuel Beckett As Found In An Envelope (partially burned) In A Dustbin In Paris Labeled "Never to be performed. Never. Ever. EVER! Or I'll Sue! I'LL SUE FROM THE GRAVE!"
After garnering raves and a FringeNYC Overall Excellence Award last summer, Chicago's Neo-Futurists and Theater Oobleck return to New York with this show by Greg Allen, Ben Schneider, and Danny Thompson. The trio purportedly "discovered" these lost treasures, supposedly by Beckettt (but not really), one of which they claim to have been written posthumously.
The highlight of the evening is a piece called "Happy Happy Bunny Visits Sad Sad Owl," supposedly written by seven-year-old Sammy Beckett in 1913. Thompson performs it in its "original puppet staging." After a rather silly sequence involving a cupcake eaten by the aforementioned owl, the sketch takes a darkly comic turn, rich with Beckettian clichés. Eventually, everything on the stage hops away with the rabbit--including the leaves on the tree--leaving Sad Sad Owl alone in a barren landscape.
Although a knowledge of Beckett's oeuvre is not an absolute requirement for enjoying the show, it helps. There are numerous in-jokes that can only be properly appreciated if you're familiar with the corresponding Beckett work. If you know "Rockaby," you may get more than a chuckle out of "If." If you've read Beckett's "What Where," then you'll know what the troupe is parodying in the skit titled "fragment (oddly found on a balled up piece of paper seemingly written through dictation)."
For the non-Beckett scholars, there's still plenty to enjoy--particularly in the rich, comic performance of Ben Schneider. He knows how to act without words, and his facial expressions and gestural fluidity are hilarious. Umit Celebi, who replaces Allen for this current staging, is also a treasure; his deeply resonant voice and superb timing lend a dramatic polish to the presentation, which is sometimes more successful in its conceptual form than in its execution.
The material here is intentionally repetitive, but the company is not always able to make those repetitions seem fresh. The show falters during a running gag involving threats from the Beckett estate (or perhaps from the dead author himself). Also, the piece "If" is hilarious the first few times, but loses something by the time of its sixth go-round.
The three performers are fun to watch, and the material is quirky and irreverent. While Samuel Beckett may not have approved of such an undertaking, it makes a fitting tribute to this important writer, known for finding the humor within an existential human condition.
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