Bleak AND Hilarious – A Show to Conjoin Contradictions

THIS WILL HAVE BEEN another Happy Day … after all” is one of the many repeated and deeply ambiguous refrains that we hear. It forms a rough, hemp-like strand running through Samuel Beckett’s horribly ironic, indeed cuttingly satirical play Happy Days. A new production of this notorious piece (i.e. dauntingly hard-to-stage) was opened tonight by the Yale Repertory Company, under the illuminating direction of James Bundy.

As ever, the almost superhuman responsibility for keeping the play in focus - or, let’s be honest … rendering it watchable at all - falls upon the actress playing the main character, ‘Winnie’.

Mercifully and miraculously, that actress - reprising her original run at Yale’s own Connecticut home last year, now as guest of the Theatre for a New Audience’s Polonsky Shakespeare Center in Brooklyn, NY - is an especially translucent Dianne Wiest.

With multiple Oscar and Emmy awards to her credit, Wiest is also (so evidently here) a thoroughly practiced treader of the boards - even though we don’t get to see her treading anywhere here. Indeed, we see nothing of her at all below her waist … and by the end of the evening nothing below her chin.

Famously, after all, Winnie is stuck. In a hole, and sinking - the center of Beckett’s grim visualization for the limits set on life, which are seen by him as inexorable and crushing. We are all sinking toward death, we could say.

So Winnie is bound to go down, but she goes down singing.

Wiest’s entire part is in effect an incessant solo song, determinedly optimistic, a verbalized version of nonchalant whistling at the moon (or in this case a merciless burning sun). And almost every trite and ever-hopeful cliché she repeats is accompanied by the further repetition: “That’s what I always say”.

But all the while, from beneath this relentless Pollyannaism, she ensures that while we laugh, at times helplessly, we also ache with the pathos of her truth. That is the full triumph of Wiest’s commanding presence on, or rather in, the set.

Taking the thankless role of her husband Willie, Jarlath Conroy, a doughty veteran of both on- and off-Broadway, gets to move around somewhat more than she, though not a lot.

Conroy (full-body) left, and Wiest (head-only)
Conroy (full-body) left, and Wiest (head-only)

And he gets to speak a bit too, though never enough to divert the soloist’s flow. He’s a man of few words without a doubt, but each single one, both Beckett and the actor insist, is loudly telling. Conroy is able to cunningly exploit his (relatively) greater mobility, and even achieves a memorable pratfall of a kind - all the more remarkable and shockingly funny for his being very far from erect in the first place.

Inevitably though, the evening belongs to the principal player. Wiest has unsurprisingly made quite a study of Beckett, and once told Hilton Als of the New Yorker that Winnie’s part is “the Hamlet for actresses”.  Slipping into the role of that prince’s attendant Osric for a moment, I’ll wave my hat and call her performance: “A hit, a very palpable hit!

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