It's easy to become absorbed in physiognomy while watching "Company," at the Los Angeles Theatre Center.
Count the creases in Alan Mandell's forehead. Observe how the shadowy pit in his left cheek expands and contracts, in unison with Timian Alsaker's lighting scheme. Not only is Mandell's face a fascinating piece of living sculpture, but Alsaker's lights focus on it so intensively that it diverts attention from Samuel Beckett's text--which needs all the attention it can get.
The original "Company" had nothing to do with anyone's face. It was set in darkness, and it was in prose--where it should have remained. Many of the sentences in the published version must be reread before they parse--a luxury non-existent in a theatrical presentation. No matter how carefully Mandell speaks, those sentences are lost in performance, especially when they must compete with the spectacle of his face.
The theme of the piece itself is another reason why "Company" doesn't work in this revival of S. E. Gontarski's staging. The social experience of seeing this material in a theater simply is less apt than the solitary experience of reading Beckett's book, for "Company" is about aloneness.
It relates the mental adventures of a man who lies on his back in the dark, hearing a voice that may or may not be addressed to him. The staged version changes the book's anonymous narrator into a third character, much more vivid than the man or the voice. The narrator (Mandell) sits upright in a chair, never lying on his back in the dark, and he speaks of the man in the dark in the third person. Yet he listens to the disembodied voice as if he were the man in the dark himself. It is confusing.
"Confusion too is company, up to a point," wrote Beckett, but the confusion here has reached the point of diminishing returns. The concept is oddly cluttered for a writer who has stripped his work down to its barest essentials throughout most of his career.
If the creators of "Company" seek to induce within each of us a feeling of our isolation and of the futility of our flirtation with "company," as I assume they must, why not turn out all the lights, so we can't see Mandell or the other members of the audience?
Alsaker's design of the original production at Los Angeles Actors' Theatre a year ago came closer to this effect than does his current rendition. The 32 seats there seemed farther apart from each other than the 75 in the new space, and the chairs themselves were more evocative of dark and fundamental rituals. The current chairs bespeak a school cafeteria.
Of course a big chunk of the audience might fall asleep if no one turned on the lights at "Company." But at least those who remained awake wouldn't be as aware of those who dozed, as I was the other night. I also found it difficult to ignore the whispered comment from somewhere to my right, near the end of the 72-minute piece: "I thought you said it only lasted an hour."
Performances are at 514 S. Spring St., Tuesdays through Sundays at 8 p.m., Saturdays and Sundays at 2 p.m., through July 13; (213) 627-5599.