Tender Mercies

About a year ago, the Pan Pan Theatre Company staged Samuel Beckett’s All That Fall at BAM.  There were no visible actors and audience members sat in foldout chairs while listening to the dialogue and watching a series of light effects.  It didn’t quite work, but it was an interesting attempt to bring a radio play to the stage.  Now, Eileen Atkins and Michael Gambon have mounted another production at 59E59 Theaters.  Again, the fact that we are watching a radio play is foregrounded: old-fashioned microphones are hung from the ceiling, the only prop is a section of a car, and the actors pretend to read from their scripts (though likely they have memorized the text); furthermore, the play is framed by the turning on and off of a read light in the upper corner of the stage.

All That Fall is typical Beckett in that the plot is difficult to discern (especially when listening as opposed to reading the play), but a rough outline nonetheless emerges: the elderly Maddy Rooney (Ms. Atkins) goes to meet her husband, the blind and feeble Dan (Mr. Gambon), as he returns home on the train on his birthday.  Her journey to the station is long and beset by technological delays and the train itself appears late, though Dan refuses to discuss why.  Finally, a boy, Jerry (Liam Thrift), blurts out that a young child was thrown in the tracks, and we are left to wonder whether Dan had anything to do with it.

Though the material is admittedly dark—the play is mostly concerned with death and decay, and even sex doesn’t seem to bring pleasure to anyone—Beckett’s gallows humor is in fine form.  As always, he seems to suggest that he did not make this miserable world, he is simply reflecting the one he sees, so we should appreciate the jokes he is able to find in it.  Mr. Gambon, who is excellent—grumpy, exhausted, one of the few actors I have seen who can skillfully handle Beckett’s dialogue—frequently elicits nervous laughter, as when he notes with contempt that he may “pant on to be a hundred.”  And he is paired well with Ms. Atkins, whose ebullient persona reeks of desperation, of a sadness that is perhaps more devastating than Dan’s.

Being a radio play, the atmosphere at 59E59 Theaters is quite casual.  Mr. Gambon strolled into the theater through the lobby only thirty minutes before curtain, and onstage the actors behaved as if they weren’t being viewed but only heard by an audience.  Admittedly, this is an improvement over the Pan Pan production, especially since Mr. Gambon has a face that looks like it was carved especially for Beckett.  Still, I don’t know if All That Fall is meant to be experienced in a communal setting, where the lights come up at the end and strangers are cheerfully chatting their way to the exit.  Perhaps instead it would be best to listen to the play in one’s bed with all the lights out, curled up in the fetal position.

All That Fall runs through December 8th at 59E59 Theaters.  59 E. 59th Street  New York, NY.  1 hour 15 minutes.  No intermission.

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Aaron Botwick

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