Volume 74, Number 41 | February 16 - 22, 2005

Happy Days
By Samuel Beckett
Presented by Worth Street Theater Company
Classic Stage
136 East 13th Street
(212) 279-4200

Renaissance woman takes on Beckett
DeLaria told director ‘it’s my favorite play’

By JERRY TALLMER
Lea DeLaria isn’t used to being buried in dirt up to her breasts – worse yet, up to her chin – but then, who is?

Winnie is.

The Winnie of Samuel Beckett’s “Happy Days,” an achingly beautiful lonely masterpiece that recently opened at the Classic Stage Company on East 13th Street, is none other than that high-personality bombshell of many talents, Ms. Lea DeLaria.

Who the night before opening night on 13th Street was one of the stars of “Let’s Fall in Love” as a last-minute replacement for Maureen McGovern in that Valentine’s Night celebration of the 100th anniversary of the birth of “Stormy Weather,” “Over the Rainbow,” “The Man That Got Away,” “Get Happy,” etc., etc., etc. composer Harold Arlen.

Harold Arlen’s “Get Happy” was not Samuel Beckett’s or Winnie’s happy, which starts with her saying, from her mound of dirt: “Another heavenly day . . . For Jesus Christ sake Amen . . . World without end Amen.” Then she rummages in the handbag that lies within arms’ reach and brings out a toothbrush and a tube of toothpaste, with which she proceeds to brush her teeth. A tooth brush, and presently a parasol, a mirror, eyeglasses – and a revolver.

Meanwhile, crawling around behind the mound, unseen except for brief glimpses now and again, is her husband Willie, to whom she addresses the bulk of her fatalistic yet memory-infused remarks. He’s played by David Greenspan.

The director of this first New York production of “Happy Days” in some years is Jeff Cohen, who first broke into (my) attention with a brilliant gloss on Chekhov of his own devising, “The Seagull – The Hamptons,” on the Lower East Side circa 1990. It starred an unknown named Laura Linney. You might think of Jeff Cohen as a diamond miner.

“I don’t know how to say this,” Cohen said the other day, “but Lea DeLaria is the closest thing to a Renaissance woman I know. In addition to being this iconic lesbian stand-up comedian, and a premier jazz singer, and a Broadway star, she’s now going to be known as an indelible interpreter of Beckett.”

He had seen her in the Public Theater’s “On the Town” and she’d performed at the post-9/11 Stage Door Canteen he’d created at his Tribeca Playhouse, on Reade Street (“She sings like an angel”), before he lost that hand-built venue to the landlord. When Cohen and producer Carole Fineman then saw DeLaria in Michael John LaChiusa’s “Little Fish” at Second Stage,” Jeff doesn’t know how or why “but I just thought she would be perfect for ‘Happy Days.’ ”

Went backstage and told her so. Was startled when she told him it was her favorite play. “And that was it.”

Cohen, who was born in Baltimore, and whose father for some years owned and operated a minor-league baseball team called the Bowie Baysox, first started reading Beckett at NYU in the 1970s.

“As a director I’ve never tackled him before,” says the 47-year-old who has tackled Chekhov, Buchner, Moliere, and others. “Reading Beckett, I found it both impenetrable and alluring – and it also struck me as funny, as exemplified by the Gogo of the U.S. premiere of ‘Waiting for Godot’ being that old vaudevillian Bert Lahr. Lea’s ability to bring a sense of vaudeville to ‘Happy Days’ is very appealing to me.”

All of “Happy Days” – all of Beckett — is enough to break your heart (also to heal your heart), but when one comes to a passage like the following, close to the end of the play, the breath is snatched out of one’s body:

What are those splendid lines? (Pause.) Go forget me why should something o’er that something shadow fling … go forget me … why should sorrow … brightly smile … go forget me … never hear me … sweetly smile … brightly sing.

“It’s not a good idea to try to divine an author’s intent,” says director Cohen, “and of course Mr. Beckett is notorious for not discussing his intent, but I’m persuaded that he frames his plays in a post-apocalyptic wilderness, basically asking the question: What do you do if you’re the last person – or the last people – on earth? What do you do with eternity?

“What Beckett creates – he does it with ‘Godot,’ he does it with this, he does it with all his plays – is an Everyman, or an Every Woman, essentially the paradigm of ordinariness. Didi and Gogo, the two tramps. Winnie, a wife – with a handbag, a bag containing the objects of her routine.

“She brushes her teeth, files her nails, puts on her hat, takes out the parasol, the revolver, also a music box. This is all in the first act. Then in Act II [where she’s buried up to her chin], Beckett takes them all away from her. She can’t reach them. And it’s torture – very cruel torture. The Dantean idea of purgatory, the circles of hell. Beckett is asking: What happens if I put the most ordinary person I can create in the most extraordinary circumstance I can think of?”

To Jeff Cohen, as to many others, the works of Samuel Beckett pose the Existential dilemma: the problem, if you like, of Nothingness. But for the director of this particular play, there’s also another problem, another challenge:

“How do you make what’s essentially a two-hour monologue, where nothing happens – how do you make that stageworthy? And that,” says the director of this particular play, “is where Lea DeLaria comes in.”

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