Review: ‘Beckett in Manhattan’


John Pilling


The transfer of Alan Schneider’s much-praised production of Play, That time and Footfalls from Washington’s Arena theatre to the tiny Manhattan Theatre Club at E.73rd Street offered New Yorkers the chance to see Beckett’s two most recent stage dramas, alongside the play that has come to seem to have most in  common with them since the Royal Court first performed this shadowy trio. But no two productions are identical, and there were changes in transit that distinguished the New York performances from the Washington ones. Alan Schneider had been forced to find a new actress at short notice to play May in Footfalls and W2 in Play, and was fortunate to find such a sensitive replacement as Suzanne Costallos, who (in her first professional role) acted as if she had been playing Beckett all her life, so that even someone feeling that Billie Whitelaw’s approach was the definitive one would have been forced to admit that Miss Costallos’s interpretation was equally valid and exciting. Donald Davis and Sloane Shelton repeated their Washington successes, although the disembodied head of Davis did not seem to be looking down in the manner of Pat Magee at the Royal Court. No doubt the very small Manhattan stage had something to do with this, as the small auditorium—the customary New York warning that ‘Occupancy by more than . . . persons is unlawful and dangerous’ permits an audience of only 176—had much to do with the oppressive atmosphere the three plays generated. This was truly chamber drama, with everything presented to us in close-up, as if the life beyond the grave which the actors were impersonating was contiguous with the quotidian life of the audience.


The sense of a mysterious community of the living and the dead was strong in That time and Footfalls, but less so, surprisingly, in the more severely formal Play. The inquisitorial light was much less crisp than in the English production, and had none of the reckless speed that made the Royal Court Play so exhilarating and breathtaking. The effect was to align Play with the nostalgia of That time, which one sometimes feels is too languid to be dramatic, and which might be more compelling as a radio play or short prose text. The slow tempo of Play made for a longer and more uniform evening, but domesticated some of the shock-waves that Play customarily generates, and made the play seem too long (as That time nearly always seems). During rehearsals for the first American production of Play, Edward Albee tried to persuade Alan Schneider that New York audiences would never sit through the da capo, and proposed that Play should be cut in half. Schneider is not the sort of man to take short cuts with Beckett, but may have perhaps made Play too slow this time, for although the 176 persons sat respectfully through the complete Play, they were very much less riveted than the London audience of May 1976, who sat much further from the stage.


In the case of Footfalls, however, one felt the strange communal electricity that only a perfectly timed and poised performance can bring into being. Footfalls, unsullied as yet by critics claiming to understand it, is the kind of play that will always electrify an audience. Oblique and difficult, like Endgame, it has the same kind of formal beauty and the same severe logic, the sense of material thoroughly mastered.


The productions were so well received that Schneider was asked to extend the run beyond 15 January. Clive Barnes (late of the Times but now reviewing for a rival newspaper) waxed lyrical and incandescent about Footfalls in particular, and found the later Beckett ‘less esoteric’ than the earlier, whilst, at the same time, ‘more remote.’ The Village voice, which, twenty years ago, carried such challenging debates on the merits and demerits of Godot and Endgame was the only journal to view Schneider’s latest Beckett venture (his twenty-seventh) with antipathy. But the voice of the Village carries much less far than once it did and is almost inaudible by the time it reaches E.73rd Street. The only voice at MTC this Christmas was Beckett’s, thanks to Schneider’s (and his actors’) sensitive ventriloquism.