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THEATER REVIEW

Love and Marriage, According to Beckett

August 13, 1996|LAURIE WINER | TIMES THEATER CRITIC

LA JOLLA — With a mop of red hair, turquoise eye shadow and a broken-tooth smile, the great Ruth Maleczech looks like a Technicolor Lucy on a binge. She plays Winnie, the nonstop chatterbox who is inexplicably buried in a hill of gravel up to her considerable decolletage, in Samuel Beckett's "Happy Days," now at the La Jolla Playhouse.

This is a bleak and yet strangely buoyant portrait of a marriage, and it is played here undiluted, thanks to the extraordinary rhythms of this comedian, who seems to have her ear to Beckett's lips. Firmly ensconced in a mound of gray rubble with tufts of brown grass sprouting out here and there, Winnie lives an emotionally spirited if completely immobile life. Spouting her monologue, Maleczech can seem quite old or very young, ridiculous with her overly made-up face or dignified, terribly needy or admirably strong. She makes a day's activity out of the few props available--that is, those sundries she can pull out of her purse and a small white parasol nearby on her mound, designed with grim whimsy by Douglas Stein.

A loud blast, sounding like the halftime buzzer in an NBA game, regulates Winnie's activity. At the second buzzer, she pulls out a toothbrush and a squashed tube of toothpaste and gamely begins brushing, going up and down over each tooth, pursing her lips and crossing her eyes, a portrait of dainty dementia.

Finished, and with not much else to do, she tries to read the words on her toothbrush--"fully guaranteed, genuine pure . . ., " but she keeps getting snagged on what comes next. She puts on her spectacles. Still no luck. In Maleczech's hands, Winnie's inability to read those next words is a delicious little vaudeville; they seems to contain the meaning of life, these words on her toothbrush. As frustrated as she is, she performs a delicate, resigned "ah, well" shrug each time she fails. Then she pulls out a magnifying glass. Finally, the riddle of the ages is solved: "Fully guaranteed . . . genuine pure . . . hog's . . . seta."

And what does Winnie do after this tireless search for knowledge is fulfilled with such mundane, even upsetting, information? Being the optimistic and brave soul that she is, she proclaims without missing a beat: "That's what I find so wonderful, that not a day goes by . . . without some addition to one's knowledge, however trifling. . . ." And she beams, forgetting her struggle and the disappointing fruit of her labor.

Winnie's largest prop is her husband, Willie, who is nearby, somewhere behind the mound, close enough to get hit every time she throws something back there. Scrawny and sunburned and cranky, Willie (a visually effective Tom Fitzpatrick) makes the occasional appearance, crawling around, never getting too close. Willie is Winnie's lifeline to the world, not because he ever does anything for her, except very occasionally answer a few questions. He is the witness of her life, the auditor of her chatter, the person whose presence makes it all mean something.

And so it is that Beckett clarifies life down to its essence, proving that a tiny pinpoint of light is the most illuminating kind. Director Robert Woodruff is marvelously attuned to Beckett's vision in the first act, though he fails to provide enough steam in the second, when Winnie is buried all the way up to her neck, unable to reach her beloved props. Then, Maleczech has only her eyes to move. Even Willie seems to have gone, which drains all the girlish affectation from Winnie, inducing a claustrophobia in the audience that veers dangerously close to stupor in this production. Still, after a logy dip, the second act is redeemed in its final moments.

As difficult and thankless a part as Winnie might seem, it is actually a valentine from Beckett to an actress, if she is the right actress. Maleczech is the right actress. In turn a tough old bird, a flighty young thing, vulnerable and strong, and very funny, she makes the most out of the intense distillation that is "Happy Days."

In one of Beckett's most brilliant images, Willie finally comes a-calling, after Winnie's more disturbing, sexually tinged second-act monologue. He arrives in formal dress, with an elaborate mustache and climbs on his hands and knees over the grassy knoll that is, in effect, Winnie's body. Is he heading for the revolver, one of Winnie's goodies from her bag lying near her head? Is he going to shoot Winnie, or himself, or is he simply trying to have sex with his long-neglected wife, trying to negotiate all of the accreted dirt between them?

The answer is not the issue, only the curious sight of this top-hatted man crawling up the mound that is his wife, that and the multiplicity of meanings in all of Beckett's simple images. The mystery should be enough of an answer, why we do whatever it is we do. And it is.

* "Happy Days," La Jolla Playhouse, La Jolla Village Drive and Torrey Pines Road, Tuesday-Saturday, 8 p.m.; Sunday, 7 p.m.; Saturday-Sunday, 2 p.m. Ends Sept. 8. $19-$36. (619) 550-1010. Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes.

Ruth Maleczech: Winnie

Tom Fitzpatrick: Willie

A La Jolla Playhouse production. By Samuel Beckett. Directed by Robert Woodruff. Sets Douglas Stein. Costumes Jack Taggart. Lights John Philip Martin. Sound Michael McClung. Stage manager Kristen Harris.

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