Theater Reviews

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New York Theatre Workshop
Through Jan. 20

In "Waiting for Godot," arguably Samuel Beckett's most celebrated work, two tramps are on the lookout for something that never arrives. Audiences for "Beckett Shorts" likely will be able to relate.

The production is a showcase for four of Beckett's short plays: "Act Without Words I," "Act Without Words II," "Rough for Theatre I" and "Eh Joe." And with Mikhail Baryshnikov featured in each of the works, nevermind a score by Philip Glass, the idea must have seemed inspired.

Sadly, a concept and its reality often are different animals. The biggest problem here is the choice of Becketts, with only one of the symbol-laden pieces proving particularly interesting.

The first two offerings, as their titles imply, are mimed. In "Without Words I," Baryshnikov is alone on a sand-filled stage as elements drop from the sky that could prove his salvation: a tree of life, a water-filled pitcher, etc. But an unseen force continues to stymie his efforts to use them.

In "Without Words II," Baryshnikov and David Neumann play sad sacks, literally. Roused from slumbering in individual body bags, the two vagabonds take turns at becoming members of society before returning to their former state, only to begin again.

Words are finally spoken in "Rough for Theatre I" as Baryshnikov portrays a blind violinist who debates the stages of happiness and potential companionship with a wheelchair-bound crazy man, brought to life by Bill Camp.

Finally, "Eh Joe" features Baryshnikov as Joe, silently reacting to the words of a woman from his past, played by Karen Kandel, who in likelihood is a memory of the pair's tortured relationship.

As directed by Joanne Akalaitis, "Eh Joe," which Beckett originally wrote for television, is visually striking and undeniably intriguing. Played by Baryshnikov and Kandel behind a series of transparent panels, video close-ups of Baryshnikov's reactions to her verbiage are cleverly projected atop the screens. Better still, with 25 minutes devoted to the piece, character development and an eerie mood have time to grow and emerge.

Unfortunately, the other three (clocking in at 10 minutes, 10 minutes and 20 minutes, respectively) prove utterly forgettable with their metaphor-heavy themes of despair, man's insignificance and life's futility. None is aided by the irrelevant Glass score, which basically fills in momentary gaps between the four pieces or screechily highlights certain actions.

Neither is this an actor's field day. Granted, Baryshnikov shows some physical comedy skills, particularly in "Without Words I," though it gets quickly redundant. Any chance to expose dramatic heft, though, is left to some of Beckett's other works. Within the setup's limitations, Neumann and Camp offer journeyman support, while Kandel displays her acumen with a well-modulated narrative.

Still, with a running time of slightly more than an hour and top ticket prices at $65, viewers spending a buck per minute could rightfully expect a bigger payoff. Clearly, only Beckett's die-hard devotees need to get in line.

BECKETT SHORTS
Presented by New York Theatre Workshop
Credits:
Playwright: Samuel Beckett
Director: Joanne Akalaitis
Original music: Philip Glass
Set designer: Alexander Brodsky
Costume designer: Kaye Voyce
Lighting designer: Jennifer Tipton
Sound designer: Darron L. West
Video designer: Mirit Tal
Cast:
Mikhail Baryshnikov, David Neumann, Bill Camp, Karen Kandel
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