Ralph Fiennes in First Love
(© Prudence Upton)
Ralph Fiennes in First Love
(© Prudence Upton)
Ralph Fiennes brings the total of devastating, monumental performances by first-rate actors to three in the current Lincoln Center Festival 2008's Gate/Beckett trilogy, with his work in First Love, a 1945 novella now brought to the stage as a creepily dolorous monologue under Michael Colgan's assured direction. (The other Beckett breath-holders are Liam Neeson's Eh Joe, staged by filmmaker Atom Egoyan and Barry McGovern's I'll Go On, also directed by Colgan; and the trio will be done in marathon performances this coming Saturday and Sunday.)

The connecting thematic tissue for these pieces is existential man terminally estranged from his surroundings, isolated in his debilitating assumptions. It's man so absorbed in an obsession with death that he finds no exhilaration in life. The forlorn figure Fiennes embodies with such precision tells the tale of a first brush with love-an event earlier in his life into which he entered reluctantly and fled impulsively and now can't shake.

When initially sighted, Fiennes has his back to the audience. A battered fedora is squashed on his head; the hem of his dull brown overcoat droops. He turns slowly, removes his hat to reveal a shaved head. Normally an astonishingly handsome man, Fiennes here is gaunt, haunted; and his face in James McConnell's shadowy lighting design is sepulchral. He's bent, as if the shabby clothes in shades of brown are weighing him down.

It's the memory of that first love, however, that's taking its toll on him, and he begins to share it-as if compelled to do so under a Purgatorial curse. Mentioning he associates falling in love for the first time with his father's death, he talks about visiting his father's grave and, at greater length, preferring cemetery strolls to walks elsewhere. Switching to a subject he misleadingly describes as happier, he brings up a woman called Loulou whom he met when she sat down on a secluded park bench he habitually occupied. Although he discouraged her from joining him regularly, she returned often enough that he eventually recognized the feelings he was developing for her as love, an emotion he'd observed in others and could therefore identify.

When she invites him to her two-rooms-with-kitchen flat, he accedes and against his deeper-seated instincts allows her to minister to him. They even engage in a night of connubial activity, but he's already aware his love is fading. When Loulou, whom he now calls Anne, announces she's pregnant and then when she gives birth, it's too much for him. His resulting self-involved action is why he needs to repeat his tale.

in Eh Joe, first written as a teleplay and only later adapted for the stage, Beckett is interested in one isolated man's dark night of the soul -- a man (Neeson) who's found a way to dismiss everything and everybody from his company and now can't sleep for the guilt attacking him. This guilt -- as strong as anything that undoes William Shakespeare's Macbeth -- is associated with a woman who committed suicide after being rejected by the protagonist. It's her voice Joe thinks he's hearing in the 30 minutes it takes Beckett to depict his terrifying plight. Joe only begins to listen to her accusations and taunts (Penelope Wilton's voice-over) after checking for intruders around his virtually empty flat and even under his bed. Craving sleep but unable to achieve it, he sits on the bed, whereupon Egoyan flashes a close-up of Joe's face on a large stage-left screen.

From that point on, the audience watches the torment flickering across the whiskered plains of Neeson's face and also Joe's bent back as he sits on the bed, only occasionally starting to nod off before another nagging thought jars him awake. The voice refers to "the penny farthing hell you call your mind," and the audience watches that interior hell freeze over. Though Joe never speaks, the concentration with which he maintains his silence is piercingly loud. Only once does a memory the voice calls up make him fleetingly smile; only once does he futilely press his eyes shut to ward off further memories; only at the end of the persistent, even-toned harangue does he hopelessly raise his right hand to his face.

Barry McGovern in I'll Go On
(© Prudence Upton)
Barry McGovern in I'll Go On
(© Prudence Upton)
Neeson, who knows less is more when a camera is turning, never allows the audience to turn away. His reaction to all charges is an unbroken admission of puzzled but unquestioned wrongdoing; his curved back is a submission to those charges. In his grimy robe, he's as emotionally cut off as the two doors and one opaque window on Eileen Diss' set over which he's pulled thick curtains. Crushing as Neeson is, he'd be emoting in a vacuum were not Wilton so assured, so goading, and so unshakably convincing as she delivers the relentless text.

I'll Go On is the umbrella title given excerpts that McGovern and Gerry Dukes have ripped from Beckett's poetically written and stunning early novels Molloy, Malone Dies, and The Unnameable. Although the so-called heroes of the volumes have different names (or no name), they are essentially the same tormented man, literally alone in a room -- in this instance, set designer Robert Ballagh's receding two-walled container bordered by glaring white florescent lights.

The lean, craggy-faced McGovern -- garbed in clothes owing something to Rei Kawakubo's drapery -- has one advantage the more handsome Neeson doesn't: Beckett's humor. In the meaty excerpt sequences, Beckett doesn't take death so seriously that he doesn't see the humor in his characters' compulsively mulling it over.

Limping through the first segment, reclining on a tomb-like platform in the second, and squatting on the floor in the third, McGovern utters Beckett's predominantly harsh and accelerating blasphemies. And yes, "I can't go on in any case, but I must go on," McGovern exclaims in the quintessential Beckett distillation of the human condition. Of course, he does go on, brilliantly.