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Happy Days

David Greenspan and Lea DeLaria in Happy Days
(Photo © Carol Rosegg)
Under the best of circumstances, Samuel Beckett's Happy Days is a difficult play to sit through. The script is basically a two-act monologue delivered by Winnie, a woman in the process of being buried alive. Occasionally, her husband Willie chimes in. There is little action in the play; its drama results from the shades of meaning and comic absurdity that the actress playing Winnie is able to bring to Beckett's existential classic. In the Worth Street Theater Company's revival, presented by Classic Stage Company, the role is played by Lea DeLaria -- and to say that she's miscast is an understatement.

DeLaria's Winnie never seems quite real. While I'm not expecting naturalism from a Beckett play, I do expect that the performer be committed to her words and actions. I never once believed this Winnie, whether she was brushing her teeth, rummaging through her bag, or simply trying to amuse herself with observations on her personal circumstances. DeLaria exaggerates everything to the point where, despite the fact that she is buried in a mound of dirt, her acting is completely ungrounded.

Greenspan fares better as Willie. All we see is the back of his head, shoulders, and arms, yet he commands attention with an economy of movement and a strangled vocal delivery that's a sharp contrast to Winnie's endless prattling. Willie doesn't talk very much, preferring instead to read the newspaper. He gets to move around more in the second act, and as he crawls around the stage, the action is riveting precisely because the actor seems wholeheartedly invested in it. DeLaria's performance, on the other hand, lacks focus. As she continues her monologue, she tries on a variety of dialects ranging from Brooklynese to Southern to Irish. She even sings some of her lines. While these strategies are potentially effective, you rarely get a sense that DeLaria knows why she's delivering the words in a particular way.

Director Jeff Cohen hasn't helped clarify her intentions; he has either encouraged DeLaria to be as broadly cartoonish as possible or has been unable to prevent her from becoming so. Though the production is well supported by the design team -- David P. Gordon (sets), Scott Bolman (lights), Kim Gill (costumes), and Jill BC Du Boff (sound) -- it ultimately makes little difference because DeLaria is so awful. In his director's notes, Cohen claims that he wanted to emphasize the humor in the play and, in particular, its tributes to music hall, vaudeville, and classic clowning. Unfortunately, these attempts fall flat; the majority of the show is decidedly unfunny.

In fact, it's boring. After a while, I tired of watching the onstage non-action, so glanced around at my fellow audience members. There were two young women asleep in the first row and, later, two men also started dozing. They'd occasionally wake up and try to seem interested, but you could tell it was a losing battle.

Several people have suggested to me that the production would work much better if the cast members switched roles. Based on several productions in which I've seen David Greenspan, I'm certain that he'd be a terrific Winnie; his solo play The Myopia proved that he can keep lengthy monologues fresh and interesting, and he has taken on a number of female roles in the past. In turn, DeLaria may be more suited to a part that is not so monologue-driven, and she has performed in male drag on occasion -- most notably in The Rocky Horror Show. Presumably, rights issues with the Beckett estate would prevent such non-traditional casting, but it would probably be far more faithful to the playwright's original intentions than the travesty of a production that's currently being offered.