In 1960 Edward Albee’s first major play, “The Zoo Story,” opened in New York on a double bill with Samuel Beckett’s “Krapp’s Last Tape.” It was a reprise of sorts — in 1958 both plays were first unveiled, in tandem, in Berlin. Four decades on, this formidable pair of playwrights, who share a clear-eyed but bleak vision of human experience and a firm belief in the supremacy of language in theatrical art, are together again on a New York stage. Three stark slices of Beckett’s minimalism are the first course, with Albee’s brisk, breezy 1976 comedy “Counting the Ways” to follow.
This time around, there’s little history being made — the produc-tion, directed by Lawrence Sacharow, is hardly likely to add any luster to the firmly established reputations of these playwrights. But who thinks of posterity when Marian Seldes and Brian Murray are onstage? If the Beckett plays feel a bit like homework, the Albee is the bowl of ice cream that comes as a reward. In this vaudevillian reverie on romance, the two veteran actors revive the warm rapport, liberally laced with acid, they brought to Albee’s “The Play About the Baby” a few seasons back on the same stage.
But first comes the more challenging Beckett trio. These pieces, from the latter days of the Irish playwright’s career, employ a reduced theatrical vocabulary to express his uncompromising vision of life as a meaningless, monotonous blur of painful experience.
Beckett once said he wished he could reduce theater to “a pair of blubbering lips,” and in the 1972 play “Not I,” performed here by Seldes, he essentially did. Most of the stage is in darkness, save for a harsh spotlight on a mouth floating at an unnatural height, a potent image of isolation. The disjointed monologue, a stream of brief phrases delivered in a breathless rush, appears to be the life story of an elderly woman who has spent her loveless life (“spared that”) in numb silence. She is suddenly jolted into torrential speech after undergoing a mysterious but unfathomable experience while “wandering in a field” one day.
Seldes delivers this formidable slab of dialogue in a slight brogue that suits its cadences and its few specific details, her enunciation precise, the merciless tempo unflagging. It’s a macabre, effective performance of a piece of writing that encapsulates Beckett’s vision of human experience as a grim, mysterious joke with no punchline and consciousness as a tool of self-torture.
Devoid of physical presence in “Not I,” Seldes is able to shed her naturally hearty theatrical manner, which is at odds with the rigorously unembellished aesthetic of Beckett.
The actress is less effective in “Footfalls.” Here she paces back and forth across the front of the stage in measured steps while trading odd snatches of dialogue with a ghostly presence from another room. (The characters are a daughter and mother, the latter crisply played by Delphi Harring-ton.) Seldes employs expressive gestures — hands stretched questingly before her, sweeping movements of her odd, bulky gown — ill-suited to Beckett’s pared-down sense of drama. (Catherine Zuber’s costume, which makes Seldes look like the twin sister of Ian McKellen in “The Lord of the Rings,” is distractingly exotic — and often muffles the rhythmic sound of her pacing.) “Footfalls,” another rumination on a stunted life, is a recondite work, and it does not make a powerful impression here.
“A Piece of Monologue,” written in 1979, is another hallucinatory recapitulation of the oppressive monotony of existence, inflected by the ever-present shadow of death. The lights come up on Murray looking oddly Dickensian. The long white wig and nightgown make him appear like a character from “A Christmas Carol.” (Marley’s ghost? Scrooge himself? Opinion was divided.) But sentimental thoughts are banished as Murray speaks the piercing, quintessentially Beckettian opening line: “Birth was the death of him.”
Murray’s engagement with the piece’s blunt but lyrical language is unquestionable, but the performance is at times too exuberant. The playwright was a notorious stickler for stage directions, and there are none in the printed text that suggest the recurring single-word sentence — “Birth” — should be bellowed at ear-piercing volume. These and other actorial touches tend to break the hypnotic mood.
Both performers are more at ease in the old-fashioned theatrical embrace of “Counting the Ways.” The play is a series of blackout sketches (subtitled “a vaudeville”) dancing around various aspects of romantic love, seen here in the vaguely suggested context of an enduring marriage. The style is playful, but the point of view is skeptical, at times even savage. Sunny moments are soon thrown into shadow, and more often than not the subject is the waning of love, or the loss of it, or its uncertainty.
In the first piece, Seldes asks earnestly, “Do you love me?” and then expresses simple pleasure and approval when the answer comes back, “Of course.” Two scenes later, following a discussion of the meaning of the term “love in the afternoon,” she muses on the nocturnal alternative: “Love at night? After the drinks? And too much food? The old arguments hashed over for the guests? … The bile and the regrets and half numb and better off straight to sleep but no, fumbling and a little hatred with each thrust…” The performer’s matter-of-fact recitation amusingly underscores the harsh bite of the words.
“Counting the Ways” sometimes feels like outtakes from previous Albee plays, or doodles for future ones, but Murray and Seldes inflect it with myriad delightful touches. Seldes seethes with hilarious genteelness during a sketch in which an angered Murray demands to know when their single bed became a pair of them. Their expressive eyebrows at times seem to be engaged in an arching competition. Murray’s suave, companionable manner warms up a chilly passage in which he reflects on the experience of suffering: “Most of it’s slow and after the fact and has to do with going on without something we thought was necessary — essential — but then discovered it merely made all the difference: One could go on if one really wanted to.”
Above all, they both display the relish for Albee’s language that made their pairing in “Play About the Baby” one of the acting highlights of recent seasons. In fact, the actors get to add a few of their own words to Albee’s, too, in a passage in which the performers drop the professional mask and address the audience directly. It’s a measure of the actors’ intuitive rapport with the playwright that their little monologues — Seldes’ modest, touching admonition to the audience not to discard their Playbills right outside the theater, Murray’s witty riff on narcissism and a certain bodybuilder-politician — fit right in.