Human suffering is funny, and that’s sad. Witness Mikhail Baryshnikov, formerly one of the finest ballet dancers in the world, as a broken-down old man, prodded and teased by a divine offstage presence that offers him respite and then happily snatches it away with the cadence of a Chuck Jones cartoon prankster. The evening’s four Beckett micro-tragedies flourish under the care of director JoAnne Akalaitis, graced by apropos incidental music by Philip Glass and a cast led by the fearless Baryshnikov down into the most humorous depths of despair.
It’s redundant at this point to praise Beckett for his plays. Everybody who needed to say “Good job, Sam” has done so long before today. But thankfully, his work is so dense and rich that it still bears unpacking, even though it always looks like a wasteland at first blush.
To begin with, there’s nothing but sand on the set of “Act Without Words,” with Man (Baryshnikov) being pushed out onto it by Someone offstage. He doesn’t want to go; it’s hot and dry, and there’s nothing to eat or drink. So he tries to leave the set, but he can never manage to stay in the wings for more than a second or two without being bounced like a teenager with a fake ID.
In “Waiting for Godot,” Gogo almost remembers Proverbs 13:12 — “Hope deferred maketh the heart sick.” It takes a uniquely disturbed genius to play that sentiment out here, in mime, with an audience snickering as a carafe of water is pulled away from a man who can only bat at it like an angry kitten. More than disturbing, though, the play inflicts a kind of shooting emotional pain exacerbated by the coincident laughter. The old man jumping up in the air to get to the water is pretty funny, but he sure makes you thirsty.
“Act Without Words II” features Baryshnikov and David Neumann on a literal lifeline: a raised, narrow platform that runs the length of the stage. What Beckett describes as a goad (here, a harpoon Melville would envy) enters while they’re sleeping between “days” and pokes them along the stage. For laughs, Glass has composed shark attack music for this segment: every time the goad enters, an ominous strings section plays a deep, quick, repetitious melody that sounds like a parody of the “Jaws” theme.
It’s not easy to shift gears for the third segment, “Rough for Theater I,” especially since we’re now unused to hearing Baryshnikov speak. Bill Camp aids considerably in the transition; few can give a rousingly physical performance from the confines of a wheelchair, but the actor pulls it off, wielding his crutch like a broadsword and impossibly hamming up lines like “Are you beginning to like me, or is it only my imagination?”
It’s a long fall from “Act Without Words I,” which is essentially an unusually bleak vintage Warner Bros. toon, to “Eh Joe,” the final and least upbeat play of the evening.
“Eh Joe” was written for TV, and thus Akalaitis has the most leeway with this piece (the Beckett estate keeps a tight rein on his interpreters), but more than anything, it looks like a grad school thesis with its scrim-projected videography and inscrutable blocking choices for the implacable narrator (Karen Kandel).
What grounds the final play, and what Beckett wrote painstakingly into the script, is the face of Joe (Baryshnikov again). It’s the same face we’ve been seeing constantly over the course of the evening, but as its contours are slowly inflated for us to examine, Akalaitis fills the proscenium with a blasted landscape every bit as barren as the empty desert. Joe sits motionless, unhappy, with Kandel’s serpentine words in his ear, not quite crying.
Mercifully, there’s nothing funny about this piece — as the last three plays have shown so clearly, it hurts most when we laugh.