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Theatre in Review: Happy Days (Theatre @ Boston Court/The Flea Theater)

Brooke Adams. Photo: Joan Marcus

"Another heavenly day." It's one of the most unbeatable opening lines in dramatic literature, not least because it is delivered by a woman buried up to her chest. She is Winnie, the indomitably cheery housewife who ritually counts her blessings, no matter how tiny, facing with a smile her desert-like existence, accompanied only by a husband who is little more than a grunting animal. Even later, when she is buried up to her neck, Winnie refuses to relinquish her blind, blank optimism. There are moments in Andrei Belgrader's production of Happy Days when Brooke Adams seems up to her neck in the ambiguities of Samuel Beckett's text, and she struggles to make music out of his bleak, brief way with words. But she eventually makes the role her own, even if she gets there by a rather different route.

The weakness of Adams' performance -- and it is a serious one -- is that the actress, who has spent the bulk of her career in film and on television, lacks the sophisticated vocal apparatus needed to get the full value out of a text that consists of Winnie's random thoughts and memories presented in a flood of repetitions, allusions, and bits of poetry. Sentences trail off into dead ends and thoughts vaporize before being fully articulated -- and still Winnie insists that she lives a blessed existence. Adams' instincts are good, but the actresses who have won acclaim in the role -- from Ruth White to Billie Whitelaw to Fiona Shaw -- have been creatures of the stage, sorceresses with words, no matter how oblique; she's not in their class. Also, Adams -- even now, in her 60s -- exudes a youthful charm and natural beauty that seems at odds with the rather frowsy, middle-class matron that Beckett imagined. Her Winnie would be right at home at the country club, if they could just dig her out of that sandtrap.

Still, there's no denying that Adams has her own sneaky, subtle way of bringing Winnie to life. When it comes to radiance, the actress is her own solar system, possessed of a dozen different smiles, each of which seems to fill the room. These are not the vacuous poses of a Hollywood star, mind you; each sends its own semaphore signals of joy or distress. There is the big, open, full-faced beam that is like the rising of the sun; there is the goofy, embarrassed grin that seems to recall some past indiscretion. And there is the smile that thoroughly contradicts the look of panic in her eyes, and the one that fades into disenchantment without seeming to move. Each of these looks speaks volumes about Winnie even when Adams' line readings don't quite capture the peculiar mixture of tragedy and farce embodied in Winnie's existential dilemma. Even more distinctively, Adams mines enormous eloquence from Winnie's pauses; even as she silently contemplates the few pitiful objects laid out around here -- a toothbrush, a toothpaste tube, a mirror-- the air seems to reverberate with unspoken meanings.

Adams makes fine physical comedy out of Winnie's daily toilette; her assiduous tooth-brushing ritual, complete with a polishing job on her tongue, is like a routine by Lucille Ball. When she discovers her stupendously dissipated husband, Willie (an unrecognizable Tony Shalhoub), masturbating to a pornographic postcard, the flash of steel in her voice indicates that there is something more than the grinning idiot we think we know; suddenly she is a schoolmarm, coolly making an example of the class clown. And when, at long last, she sheds the fa├žade of optimism and indulges in a series of screams, they are both funny and filled with sheer terror at the impossibility of existence.

In contrast to Adams, whose Winnie strives to remain well put-together, complete with jaunty little hat, even in the most extreme circumstances, Shalhoub's Willie is barely human. Yes, he is mobile when Winnie is not, and he is dressed in striped trousers and a tailcoat, but when we see him he is either groaning (sometimes in discomfort, sometimes in self-administered ecstasy), ostentatiously blowing his nose (and then putting the used handkerchief on his head), or taking a spectacular pratfall; later, he crawls across the arid landscape in a futile attempt at making physical contact with his wife. His is a Willie to remember, robustly comic and providing stellar support to Adams' ladylike Willie.

Often, productions of Happy Days run out of steam as Beckett states and restates Winnie's predicament, but under Belgrader's direction, the longeurs are few and brief. Most of the time, one is caught up in Winnie's second-by-second focus on the smallest details of living, even as the earth seems to swallow her, leaving her a head bobbing on a piece of parched earth. Overall, Belgrader, whose current production of Doctor Faustus at Classic Stage Company reveals his penchant for anything-goes innovations, has taken the canonical approach. Takeshi Kata's dusty setting, backed by curved blue-sky cyc, is exactly what you would expect; the same is true of Tom Ontiveros' lighting, Melanie Watnick's costumes., and Robert Oriol's sound, which concentrates on the neve-shattering alarm clock that sounds whenever Winnie drifts off.

And, despite the role's weaknesses and oddities, Adams captures the essence of Winnie, bravely, madly anticipating an emotional fulfillment, the possibility of which, if it ever existed, is now long gone, never to return. She is, in the end, a fine example of, as Thomas Gray (and Beckett) would have it, "moody Madness laughing wild/Amid severest woe." -- David Barbour

(2 July 2015)

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