If comedians like Bert Lahr, Steve Martin and Robin Williams could make a meal out of Beckett’s existential masterpiece “Waiting for Godot,” there’s no reason Lea DeLaria shouldn’t have a stab at “Happy Days.” The slap-happy character of Winnie (her cheery optimism undiminished by being up to her neck in a sandpit) is a juicy role for a physical comedian like DeLaria, who comes up with an impressive repertoire of facial expressions and vocal mannerisms to keep the smile on Winnie’s face as she sinks deeper into oblivion. But it’s painfully obvious this is an acting exercise for the star, who works hard on the externals without touching the tragic core of Winnie’s isolation.
Before the lights even go up on Winnie, sound designer Jill BC Du Boff scores big with a ground-shaking explosion that preps the aud for some unseen catastrophe. An elemental composition of wind, rain and man-made destructive devices, the sound could be a plane crash, an earthquake, a tidal wave, a nuclear bomb — or all of the above. Whatever it is it doesn’t bode well for creatures made of soft tissue and frangible bone.
When Beckett’s world opens up, David P. Gordon’s cartoonlike set reveals the bad news: That roaring sound must have signaled the end of civilization, because the only sign of life is a woman buried up to her waist in a pile of gray ash and rubble. She’s chipper enough, though, in DeLaria’s sunny perf, happy just to be alive and determined to celebrate “another heavenly day” by carrying on with the normal routines of her diminished existence.
Winnie is not one to carry a grudge. (“Can’t be helped. Can’t be cured. Can’t complain.”) Looking as fresh as the daisies on her ridiculous hat — and trying to ignore the nasty gun that turns up in her cosmetics bag — she brushes her teeth, takes her medicine, buffs her nails, puts on her lipstick and carries on like a trouper. DeLaria revels in the absurdity of these pathetic rituals, contributing an upper-body yoga routine that is a gem of comic business. Her jaunty rendering of Winnie’s little cheer-up song is also a treat.
But, despite the relentlessly sunny sky that beams down on Winnie, the play darkens and DeLaria fails to go along with it. It barely registers on her face when husband Willie (David Greenspan) makes his first surprising appearance — wearing a snappy boater, but otherwise quite naked and incapable of speech. And by the second act, when she is buried up to her neck, there are no hints of fear in her line readings.
Thesp’s articulation is crisp enough when Winnie finally gives in to despair and delivers the most chilling lines in the play: “I can do no more. I can say no more.” Her tonal clarity gives resonance to the character’s sharp response to herself: “Something must change in this world.” But there’s no emotional impulse behind the technical precision, and Winnie’s resilience seems stupid, not courageous.
Beckett warns us against looking for any cosmic significance in “Happy Days.” (“What does it mean? What’s it meant to mean? The usual drivel.”) But no one buys that, because the play’s stark language and bleak imagery are an irresistible invitation for actresses and their directors to process Winnie’s bizarre situation into something that makes sense.
The spareness of its style opens the play to any number of interpretations. In a broad spectrum of possibilities, the defiantly resilient Winnie could be any woman trying to keep from smothering to death in a cheerless marriage. Or she could be the indomitable spirit of civilization, struggling to survive in a postnuclear age that has lost touch with its humanity. Whoever she is, Winnie should break our hearts.
The problem with Jeff Cohen’s bloodless production is not that it adopts some outre interpretation of Winnie’s existential dilemma, but that it makes no commitment. Caught up as she is in the mechanics of her performance, DeLaria has neglected to give Winnie a soul.