It is an incontrovertible fact that Liam Neeson has the most beautiful — and beautifully expressive — upper back in the entire English-speaking theater. And that’s a very good thing, since that broad, muscular back is pretty much all we get to see in the flesh of Neeson, who has the title role but not a single line of dialogue in Beckett’s bleak 30-minute piece “Eh Joe,” which was originally written for TV and is about a man with black sins on his conscience, haunted by the (recorded) voice (of Penelope Wilton) in his head.
Ideally, this 1967 teleplay about existential guilt and despair, so smartly adapted here for the stage, should be experienced within the full context of “Gate/Beckett,” the designated title for the program of short plays and readings that Lincoln Center has imported from Dublin’s Gate Theater for this year’s edition of its arts festival. (Marathon sessions — the best way to go — are scheduled for July 26 and 27.)
Short of that full experience, consider this curtain-raiser a brief but harrowing introduction to the mind of Beckett. This particular nightmare is being lived by Joe, a big, brawny guy confined to a small, airless room in his ratty dressing gown and slippers. As observed through a scrim and interpreted by the curvature of his hunched spine, Joe seems to be anticipating some kind of attack.
But after checking window and closets and looking under the bed, he relaxes enough to lie down and close his eyes.
That’s when the Voice forces his eyes back open. As tape-delivered by the estimable Wilton (“A Kind of Alaska”), the invisible visitor is like a living insect in the brain — a low buzz that grows increasingly persistent and cannot be silenced.
The Voice is taunting (“Anyone living love you now, Joe? Anyone living sorry for you now?”). It also seems to know everything awful that Joe has ever done in his life; in particular, his shabby treatment of women and, especially, his cavalier dismissal of a young woman who later killed herself.
Once Joe registers the Voice, he sits on the edge of the bed in three-quarter profile and never moves a muscle. At the same instant, his face appears in closeup on a screen imposed on his bedroom wall.
The sense of disassociation couldn’t be more dramatic. In the same way that Joe’s body is physically disconnected from his brain, his past deeds have somehow become detached from his sense of moral responsibility for them. This is what the Voice is here to rectify, and, as Joe becomes more responsive to the chilling story of what became of his most vulnerable victim, his eyes widen in horror.
Despite its brief duration, the piece draws the aud into one aspect of this conundrum. As voyeurs, should we heed every minute change in the expressions registered on Neeson’s digitally rendered face? Or should we keep our eyes glued to the fleshy reality of that bent-over back? And where does a man’s soul reside, anyway — in the body or in the mind?
Whatever …. it would be nice if someone would lift that scrim for the curtain call.