In a 1960 letter to a friend, Harold Pinter wrote of Samuel Beckett, “I’ll buy his goods hook, line, and sinker, because he leaves no stone unturned and no maggot lonely.” This is perhaps never more true than in Happy Days. Winnie (Brooke Adams), buried up to her waist in earth, regularly wakes up at the sound of an alarm bell and spends her days pleasantly chatting to her crippled husband, Willie (Tony Shalhoub), who is unable to work up the strength to do much more than squirm out of his hole, read the newspaper, and masturbate. This doesn’t seem to disturb Winnie, whose indefatigable cheer rarely darkens. “Just to know that in theory you can hear me even though in fact you don’t is all I need,” she says early on. Both in their physicality and their circumstances, Winnie and Willie come quite close to resembling maggots—but they aren’t lonely.
The setup should be familiar even if the text isn’t. Happy Days, first performed at New York’s Cherry Lane Theatre in 1961, bridges Beckett’s more narrative works like Waiting for Godot and Endgame with his more pared-down ones like Footfalls and Rockaby. We are still able to make definite claims about the characters, who aren’t entirely shrouded in inferences, but they are nonetheless more constricted than, say, Gogo and Didi, who at least have freedom of movement. It is an undoubtedly brilliant play, pairing the author’s characteristic ontological realism (often confused for pessimism) with an endearing optimism, which we may or may not choose to accept. And like any of his plays, the language is always precise, masterful, and devastating.
Still, there is something flat about director Andrei Belgrader’s revival, now running at the Flea. Both Ms. Brooke and Mr. Shalhoub are terrific performers, but the production as a whole is far too monotonous, rarely fluctuating in tone or indicating the enormous emotional significance of minor actions. Furthermore, at two hours, it seems longer than the roughly sixty-page script warrants (by comparison, a film made in 2000 runs only seventy-eight minutes). When done right, Beckett’s genius and gravitas should command all of our attention, leaving us weak, drained, and unable to get up. Unfortunately, this Happy Days is about as amiable as its ever-smiling protagonist.