Having already scaled Samuel Beckett’s masterpiece “Waiting for Godot,” comic Bill Irwin sets his sights on considerably less lofty Beckett in the New York Shakespeare Festival production of “Texts for Nothing.” His accessibility accounts for whatever appeal the one-act has to offer general audiences.
Die-hard Beckett fans should enjoy this brief (slightly over one hour) play, adapted by Joseph Chaikin and Steven Kent from two pieces of Beckett fiction, “Texts for Nothing” (1955) and “How It Is” (1961). Other audience members might stare more at their watches than the stage.
The work is minor, boiled-down Beckett, with a nameless character filled with existential angst stalking the stage and mouthing an often nonsensical barrage of nihilistic non-sequiturs and philosophical musings. Typical bits of monologue: “What am I doing now? I’m trying to see where I am so I can go elsewhere should the occasion arise.” Or, “Soon I won’t be here yet. I don’t try to understand.”
With modern audiences grasping the absurdist point five minutes into the piece (if it takes that long), the focus falls entirely on the performance, and Irwin knows it.
There are times when every muscle in his face and body seems to operate independently, as he lets the character’s agitation pour out in a flow of nervous energy. With his trademark blend of mime, slapstick and mesmerizing vocal control, Irwin is the embodiment of Beckett’s trapped-in-this-world panic.
But try as he might, even Irwin can’t turn “Texts” into much more than a museum piece or drama-school exercise. There are times, particularly in the first portion of the play, when director Chaikin even seems to be holding Irwin back, confining him to one small section of Christine Jones’s set of stacked wooden planks. If this is an intentional attempt to build claustrophobic tension , it backfires by turning tedious.
The convergence of Beckett, Irwin and Chaikin must have seemed an exciting prospect. In execution, it’s a letdown. Irwin deserves more text, less nothing.