And as things fell apart / Nobody paid much attention
—Talking Heads, “(Nothing But) Flowers”
On paper, Happy Days looks pretty unappealing. Written by Samuel Beckett in 1960 (it premiered at the Cherry Lane Theatre the following year), the entire two-hour play revolves around an elderly lady named Winnie, who, while half-buried in sand, meticulously catalogs the contents of her purse (the only object she can reach). Her husband, Willie, who is rarely seen or heard throughout the play, occasionally crawls out of his hole to read an ad from a ratty old newspaper or masturbate to a ratty old photograph. Yes, this sounds like avant-garde theater at its worst: dull, tedious, likely to make audience members acutely aware of the quality of their seats. But Beckett on stage scarcely resembles Beckett on the page, and in the intimate, 73-seat Flea Theater, Happy Days becomes a hilarious and penetrating examination of what we’re really doing when we go about our day-to-day lives, and why we’re all liable to bury ourselves in sand.
A BAM production of Happy Days in 2008, starring Olivier Award–winning actress Fiona Shaw, focused on the humor and absurdity of the two characters’ rundown relationship. Shaw is a tough act to follow, but under the expert, by-the-Beckett-book direction of Andrei Belgrader, Brooke Adams plays Winnie at the Flea with greater vulnerability, and perhaps truth. The occasional fumbled line felt in keeping with a character barely clinging to life. Winnie is an Everywoman who loves to talk; what matters is not that her words accomplish much (they don’t), but that someone — anyone — is listening. TV’s Monk Tony Shalhoub, who in “real life” (if that’s a thing) has been married to Adams for over 20 years, listens. His replies never amount to much more than a sign that he is alive and has ears, but for Winnie, that’s enough. She couldn’t bear to talk only to herself, she says repeatedly, and while Willie’s exaggerated indifference renders that claim somewhat ironic, the simple, unaffected joy that Adams takes in Shalhoub’s tiniest gestures kept us believing that there was something of true value, however fragile and constrained, in the relationship.
What’s devastating is that this very relationship is evidently preventing Winnie from noticing, or taking seriously, bigger problems. As Takeshi Kata’s faux “Wish You Were Here” seaside postcard set — a big pile of sand surrounded by cloudy sky — vividly illustrates, the world of Happy Days is one in which almost everything is dead. Winnie’s attitude towards this environmental poverty is ambivalent. At one point, she takes delight in observing, through her magnifying glass, a small worm. A few minutes later, she expresses great satisfaction that nothing around her is alive and growing, as if that would be a great big nuisance.
At the critical moment, an Event occurs that today comes across as almost too symbolic: the parasol Winnie is using to shade herself suddenly bursts into flames. Adams nails this tricky scene, brilliantly drawing out its subtle but crucial psychological point. At first she is genuinely disturbed: that has never happened before; what does it mean? But, in a matter of seconds, she is adapting to the unprecedented by turning it into the new normal. “It is no hotter today than yesterday,” she assures her beloved Willie. “It will be no hotter tomorrow than today.” You can’t help but sympathize with her strategy; after all, what can she do, buried up to her breasts in sand? You also can’t help but recognize the tragic root of our ecological crisis.
Happy Days continues at the Flea Theater (41 White Street, Tribeca, Manhattan) through July 18.