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Beckett’s Bleak Happy Days IS Here Again

Ed Rampell: One of the great things about theatre in our town is that because of L.A.’s bottomless talent pool ticket buyers often have the opportunity to see silver screen stars perform live and in person. Such is the case with Boston Court’s revival of Nobel Prize winner Samuel Beckett’s bleak Happy Days, featuring Brooke Adams and Tony Shaloub.
Beckett Happy Days

Brooke Adams and Tony Shaloub

HAPPY DAYS Theatre Review

One of the great things about theatre in our town is that because of L.A.’s bottomless talent pool ticket buyers often have the opportunity to see silver screen stars perform live and in person. Such is the case with Boston Court’s revival of Nobel Prize winner Samuel Beckett’s bleak Happy Days, featuring Brooke Adams and Tony Shaloub. Adams, of course, was the great beauty who appeared opposite Richard Gere (when he was a great beauty) in Terence Malick’s 1978 feast for the eyes, Days of Heaven. Shaloub, of course, is best known for playing the eponymous phobic detective on the Monk TV series, which ran from 2002-2009.

In this two act two-hander Adams depicts Winnie, who relentlessly strives to remain optimistic in this existential work that premiered in 1961 at Manhattan’s Cherry Lane Theatre. (That was back in the days when “existential” referred to a complicated philosophy about alienation in modern times that originated among French philosophes, such as Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus and Jean Genet, whereas today somehow an “existential” threat refers to a force that threatens one’s very existence.) As Willie, who is apparently Winnie’s partner, Shaloub is rarely seen onstage.

Beckett’s genius is in expressing the estrangement and distance between human beings in bourgeois society, which he does in a number of ways. First of all, the playwright does so via the set, which is largely a gigantic dirt-like mound that fills the tiny space of the Main Stage at Boston Court Performing Arts Center. Scenic designer Takeshi Kata’s earthen works is more or less a third character in this sparse play. Like Darren Aronofsky’s barren landscapes in the big screen epic Noah, Happy Days scenery (or lack of) is suggestive of environmental despoliation for 2014 auds facing climate change. Without giving too much away, the play’s wasteland setting is full of visual puns, allowing Beckett to graphically express the themes and notions of being buried alive; getting stuck; and of quite literally living (if you can call it that) in a rut. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust -- indeed. A mountainscape on the backcloth behind the stage suggests that perhaps the saga takes place on high.

Beckett Happy Days

Willie seems to exist in, literally, a hole in the wall -- or rather, the mound; he has literally gone “underground” (during WWII Beckett fought against the Nazis in the underground in occupied France). Willie is offstage most of the time. What little dialogue he has or action (often as related to viewers by Winnie’s grossed out running commentary) seems to center on bodily functions, with stuffy Winnie rebuffing Willie’s literal earthiness. However, when a buffoonish, bearded Shaloub (literally) crawls out of his hole he displays an adept ability to perform physical comedy, and at times, wearing his sort of fright wig, suggests an existential version of Red Skelton.

Parasol-twirling Winnie tries mightily to remain upbeat in the face of the daily grind of literally being trapped in a miserable, routinized daily grind. Winnie and Willie are fighting quite a dirty war. Somehow, through the acting, set and dialogue Beckett has conjured up a sense of what modern man regularly faces -- such as Angelenos, endlessly stuck in traffic that wears away at their souls, a perfect metaphor for our own age.

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In Act II Winnie is even worse off than in the first act, although your plot spoiler averse reviewer won’t reveal how. Adams strikes a cheery, chirpy notes as the not-so-winsome Winnie, which some may consider to be too “Wee Winnie Winkle” and happy for, well, Happy Days. In any case, Winnie is surely no winner.

Beckett Happy Days

A number of bells are struck, suggesting the regimentation of contemporary men and women in a society of alienating rules and regs. Ask not for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee…

Overall, Happy Days is a scathing critique of modern (or postmodern) society and the Boston Court production directed by Andrei Belgrader is well-mounded -- uh, I mean mounted -- with good acting and a hits-the-right-note set. Of course, it’s fab to see big and little screen thesps up close and personal, especially in such a diminutive space. However, and no disrespect meant to Adams and Shaloub, the real star is the peerless playwright from Ireland, Samuel Beckett, whose outraged, uncompromising pen drips with venom as it denounces the depersonalization of a 20th century existence that robs us of our humanity.

Happy Days, indeed!

Happy Days is being performed Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 p.m. and Sundays at 2:00 p.m. at The Theatre @ Boston Court, 70 North Mentor Avenue, Pasadena, CA 91106. The play has been extended through Oct. 19; after Oct. 12 understudy Marc Cardiff replaces Tony Shalhoub as Willie. Free parking. Info: www.BostonCourt.org; (626)683-6883.

ed rampell

Ed Rampell

Ed Rampell co-authored The Hawaii Movie and Television Book (see: http://hawaiimtvbook.weebly.com/).