Happy Days and Cock Take on Love and Mortality (GO!)

Tony Shalhoub and Brooke Adams in Happy Days at Theatre @ Boston Court
Tony Shalhoub and Brooke Adams in Happy Days at Theatre @ Boston Court
Photo by Ed Krieger

Playwrights under 40 write mainly about love and politics, or so the adage goes; playwrights over 40 write mainly about death.

By the time Samuel Beckett's Happy Days premiered in 1961, the great Irish bard was 55, which should make its subject fairly easy to guess. Originally a poet and novelist, Beckett didn't write his first play until he was 42. Who could blame the visionary surrealist for his preoccupation with The End?

Now at Theatre @ Boston Court, Happy Days is almost a monodrama, a performance-poem about a woman, Winnie (Brooke Adams), stranded outdoors. In Act 1, she's buried up to her chest, though with hands free, in a parched mound of earth. A bell rings — start of day. She brushes her teeth, puts on makeup, dons a frilly bonnet, holds up her parasol and chatters to her husband. "That's what I find so wonderful!" is her anthem. Meanwhile, hubby Willie (Tony Shalhoub, Adams' real-life husband) staggers around grunting and masturbating to a pornographic postcard. He also picks and blows his nose. Willie is mostly self-confined to a different, nearby hole in the ground.

Winnie watches him erroneously attempt to enter his hole head first, and urges him to reverse course. "I know it's not easy, dear, crawling backwards, but it is rewarding in the end," she cheers him, one in a series of ever-so-simple quips that embody the inexorable trajectory of life. This is Beckett being perversely funny, romantic and oddly feminist. Though the earth is pulling Winnie down into it, her quixotic defiance of gravity is buoyant in Adams' lucid, dignified and animated portrayal.

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In Act 2, the bell rings more frequently, like a series of electric shocks. The earth now has consumed Winnie up to her neck. She chatters on in much the same way, though with slightly less animation and slightly more heart-wrenching desperation.

This production's perfect blend of scorching pointlessness and humor approaches the slapstick of a Buster Keaton movie and also the pathos of tragedy, yet only flirts with — rather than plunges into — either extreme.

To call Andrei Belgrader's direction "restrained" would be off-point: Shalhoub's Willie blows his nose for a good minute and a half in an extended crescendo, and pops his head up and down from behind his ravine like a Jack-in-the-box. Yet circumventing such slapstick rhythms, Adams' Winnie luxuriates in the time it takes to brush her teeth and probe her gums, and relishes the sight of a crawling insect — the only sign of non-human life.

Takeshi Kata's set offers a vision discomfiting in its familiarity, the landscape of sand and stones and clumps of dead grass that we see off every freeway, set against a blue sky and the billowy clouds that have been taunting California throughout its extended drought. In this production, Beckett's 1961 lines about rising temperatures transforming us all to ashes sound more than slightly prescient.

"Why doesn't he just dig her out?" Winnie recalls the sentiments of the last human beings to pass their way. "One can do nothing," she declares. "That's what I find so wonderful!" This might seem odd coming from an author who was honored for his work in the French Resistance, but Nazis are more easily vanquished than death. And when did doom ever preclude the value of the fight against it? As Adams remarked in a postplay discussion on the night I attended, this is a romantic play. In the end, and The End is everywhere, this is still a love story.

English playwright Mike Bartlett's Cock premiered at London's Royal Court Theatre when he was 29. Even now, he's only in his mid-30s. His tautly written play is also a love story, but one that has little to do with The End.

The only character in the play with an actual name is the reedy John, played by Patrick Stafford. The play's focus is John's infuriating ambivalence over whether to continue his partnership with an older gay lover (called only "M," as in Man) or to break it off for a more traditional union with the first female he's ever found remotely sexually attractive, "W," as in Woman. John is fucking both of them at once, in more ways than the merely sexual.

As M, Matthew Elkins touchingly stirs agony into the character's haughtiness, while Rebecca Mozo plays W with striking tenderness and intelligence.

Employing a structure that would make the ancient Greeks proud, Bartlett first examines John's ambivalence with M, then John's ambivalence with W, leading to a showdown dinner with the trio, during which John is expected to announce his "decision." Love is possessive, after all.

In a twist, insecure M invites his supportive dad (the always persuasive Gregory Itzin) to that dinner for last-minute backup, since John has been vowing his impasioned yet wobbly commitment to both lovers simultaneously.

The question of why either M or W would want such an ambivalent co-traveler in life would seem to limit the dramatic tension. But Bartlett's strategically schematic approach (beyond those names, there's a bare set, with no props or furniture) directs our focus on the eternal dance of attraction and repulsion.

Director Cameron Watson underscores this beautifully by putting all focus on the sweep of physical motion and words, where the action enhances the dialogue. A sex scene in which nobody removes a shred of clothing is rare and, in this case, a rare homage to the author's intent. Stephen Gifford's all-green set design (except for purple rooster-claw scratches) has the audience encircle the small platform on which M and W play out a fascinating, desperate battle for their would-be spouse.

Why do they want him? Habit? In Happy Days, Winnie wants Willie around just as desperately, and he's just as useless. There's truth to be found in all of it.

COCK | By Mike Bartlett | Rogue Machine, 5041 W. Pico Blvd., Mid-Wilshire | Through Nov. 3 (no perfs Oct 20 or Nov. 2) | (855) 585-5185 | roguemachinetheatre.com

HAPPY DAYS | By Samuel Beckett | Theatre @ Boston Court, 70 N. Mentor Ave., Pasadena | Through Oct. 12 | (626) 683-6883 | bostoncourt.org

Use Current Location

Related Locations

miles
Rogue Machine Theatre

1089 N. Oxford Ave.
Los Angeles, CA 90029

855-585-5185

www.roguemachinetheatre.com

miles
Boston Court

70 N. Mentor Ave.
Pasadena, CA 91106

626-683-6883

www.bostoncourt.com


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