Beckett, an Irish playwright who spent much of his life in Paris and is buried there, worried about the inevitability of death long before he was interred under a simple stone slab in Montparnasse Cemetery. "Birth was the death of him," he has the ghost-like speaker (Brian Murray) exclaim at the beginning of A Piece of Monologue. In six words, he summarizes the pessimistic philosophy to which he adhered throughout his plays and novels. The outcry is heard more than once in this playlet and is even trimmed to five words -- "birth the death of him" -- before the despondent speaker ceases his utterances and the lights fade to black.
In the opening piece, Not I, wherein Beckett strips drama to one mouth chattering, barely connected sentence fragments track the same thoughts as if the woman speaking (Marian Seldes) is furiously trying to make sense of her life in what she believes are her last days. In A Piece of Monologue, the male repeatedly turns to face, as he reports, a blank east wall. In Footfalls, May (Seldes again) is condemned to take nine steps, wheel around, take another nine steps, wheel, and so on while talking to her mother (Delphi Harrington), who has died and whose face appears as if floating above and behind her. Placed immediately after A Piece of Monologue, May's forced march registers as a companion piece. But all of Beckett's pieces are companions: variations on a grim theme, compulsive ruminations about life consisting of reiterated activities leading only to extinction.
Beckett could be said to have had too narrow a worldview or, conversely, to have understood that his narrow view of the world is the most realistic possible. His plays have an effect similar to watching a child pick at a scab: He just can't, or won't, stop himself. That Beckett is effective can't be denied, largely because of the indelible images that every one of his plays presents. The mouth of Not I is the most concentrated of these images, and the constant references to tongue and lips and cheeks and jaws only etch it more deeply into our brains. But a woman walking back and forth as she attempts to put a good face on her plight, and a man shuffling between a single lamp and his sad metal cot with just the fading sun to cheer him, are equally as characteristic of the barren landscapes Beckett conjures in Waiting for Godot, Happy Days, and other works. Come to think of it, Not I could be the third act of Happy Days, with Winnie having sunk so deep in her pile of earth that only her lips are visible.
Following Beckett's three plunges into the onset of darkness with Counting the Ways, which Albee calls a vaudeville and introduces here in voiceover, is akin to a Powerpoint demonstration of the difference between despair and dismay. In 20 scenes -- some only one line long -- Albee does some distilling of his own. He takes the upper class couple that, in his works, always seems to stand in for the distant marrieds who adopted him and has them discuss -- as Mrs. Browning's poem prompts -- their love for one another or the lack thereof. There's much ado about such things as pulling the petals off roses. At times, the writing trips across the line between whimsical, and cutesy. While wondering how many ways are going to be counted before the playwright calls it quits, an Albee veteran can think about how this earlier toss-off seems to have set the pattern for the gregarious older couple in The Play About the Baby, especially as played in the original production by Albee troupers Seldes and Murray.
Raising her face into the dim light during Footfalls and taking the nine-step walks that sound designers Mark Bennett and Ken Travis amplify, Seldes is haunted yet regal. She also manipulates the voluminous, shaggy, gray robe that Catherine Zuber has designed as if May is a supermodel sentenced eternally to strut the final runway. (Zuber also designed the simple set in Beckett gray.) Incidentally, Seldes delivers Not I in an Irish accent, a reminder that Beckett had to have acquired his outlook from the homeland he abandoned. (How might he have written if, say, he'd been born in Mexico, where death is regarded in an entirely different way?)
In A Piece of Monologue, Murray isn't thin and elegant but, with his soft features and stocky frame, he seems achingly vulnerable; his wounded expressions and pained delivery recall Bert Lahr's exquisite anguish in Waiting for Godot. When Murray and Seldes take on the much slighter Albee challenge, they deploy their considerable charm for all its worth. They're both effortlessly amusing: Murray in slacks and blazer and puzzled looks, Seldes forever pointing one toe daintily and looking casual in the kind of sweater set that Anna Wintour wore throughout Fashion Week. There's a moment in Counting the Ways where an announcer (Albee again) asks the actors to identify themselves and ad lib a few remarks -- and, don't you know, the actors trump him with their quick statements.
Both of them are so adept that they get laughs simply by raising as eyebrow or, in Seldes's case, by merely saying "Here's a thought." But good as Murray and Seldes are, and thoughtful as Lawrence Sacharow's direction of them is, Counting the Ways doesn't amount to more than a sketch writer's jab at the impossibility of marital bliss. Delphi Harrington as the mother's voice in Footfalls and Peter Kybart, who stands silently in partial light during Not I, can't be faulted for doing what's been asked of them. What Beckett/Albee resembles most is a wise but solemn uncle out for a stroll with his upstart nephew.