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Theatre in Review: Sam and Dede, or My Dinner with André the Giant (Custom Made Theatre Co./59E59)

Brandon Averett, Dave Sikula. Photo: Jay Yamada

It may be the oddest couple in twentieth-century culture: Samuel Beckett and André René Roussimoff, aka André the Giant -- the writer who stared into the mystery of human existence and found an uninhabited terrain, and the star of the World Wrestling Federation until his untimely demise at the age of 46, in 1993. Actually, as Sam and Dede makes clear, it's surprising that André lasted that long, afflicted as he was with gigantism, a condition caused by too much growth hormone that often leads to multiple health problems and early death. Strange as it seems, the two men really were acquainted; Beckett, who spent a lot of time in the French countryside, knew André's father; he occasionally drove the boy to school. (André didn't fit on the bus.) This is a pretty frail premise for a play, and indeed Sam and Dede works overtime trying to spin some kind of dramatic action out of it. Basically, the big idea is that Beckett was an intellectual giant and André was, well, a giant. It takes eighty minutes for the playwright, Gino DiIorio, to get this point across.

Sam and Dede is not so much a play as a compare-and-contrast essay that imagines the two men meeting up across the years, each time trading notes on their very different lives and rehashing the same discussion about art and what it all means. In the first scene, André, according to the script, is over six feet tall and weights 240 pounds. He is twelve. He is already aware that he will spend his life being an object of curiosity and a figure of fun, and is pretty miserable about it. Crammed into the cab of Beckett's truck, they begin their lifelong debate; the boy is perplexed that Beckett has written a play and doesn't know what it means. "A play isn't about something," Beckett says. "A play is something." He then launches into a notably halting inventory of the elements of Waiting for Godot.

The action jumps ahead to 1963, the Paris opening of a production of Endgame; André, now a furniture mover in the city, attends the play and the opening-night party. We get more Modernism 101 ("A good play will mean lots of different things to everyone"), and Becket complains about his productions, his ever-shrinking output, his writer's block, and his discomfort with fame. The next time around, it's 1975 and they're having dinner. André, now a celebrity in his own right, is a roaring collection of appetites -- he admits to routinely downing a case of beer and two bottles of wine with his meals -- while Beckett grows ever more dissatisfied with just about everything. Writing, he avers, is painful; not writing, he adds, is even worse. What's an artist to do? André notes that he has been reading Beckett's novel Molloy, but he is stuck in the second paragraph. "The second paragraph is eighty pages long," Beckett comments.

And so it goes -- an eighty-minute back-and-forth that produces almost nothing in the way of insight or wit. So hard up is DiIorio for something to happen that he delivers a final scene that parodies the Beckett masterpiece Play, with André and Beckett encased in urns, with only their heads visible, delivering essentially the same monologue in run-on, overlapping fashion. Its main accomplishment is to remind one what a spellbinder Play is, in the right hands.

The most perplexing thing about Leah S. Abrams' production, originally staged by the San Francisco-based Custom Made Theatre Co., is that it unfolds in a Beckettian universe of its own, lacking the tiniest detail that would evoke the two men and the worlds in which they lived. If the tallish actor Brendan Averett never fully convinces as André, at least -- the pool of leading men with gigantism being notably thin -- he morphs into a believably outsized presence. But Dave Sikula never for a second resembles the gloomy Irishman with the X-ray stare who regarded existence as an endurance test bookended by the impenetrable enigmas of birth and death; instead, he comes across as a literature professor from the Midwest -- bland, soft-spoken, fussy, and quietly baffled. It's not just that no attempt has been made by Brooke Jennings, the costume designer, to recreate Beckett's iconic look (he is dressed in a thoroughly contemporary-looking blazer and khakis); Sikula's portrayal lacks an Irish accent, and he seemingly has never known a day's suffering.

It doesn't help that Erik Ladue's set, which evokes a kind of Beckettian void, consits of various cubes that must be rearranged at length between scenes, adding several wasted minutes to the running time. (Tara Higgins is credited with set design adaptation.) Maxx Kurzunski's lighting and Ryan Lee Short's sound design, which largely consists of a playlist of classical piano selections, are acceptable.

For all its studio comparisons, Sam and Dede is little more than a concept that needs a more audacious approach if it is ever going to pay off. (I amused myself imagining the elderly Beckett wandering into a Paris cinema one rainy afternoon to see a screening of The Princess Bride -- which features André's one big film role -- and thinking, Hey, I knew him when.) As it is, you can learn more about either man by staying home and checking out their Wikipedia pages. -- David Barbour


(21 March 2017)

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