Do not let the title of this presentation at downtown LA’s Mark Taper Forum confuse you—this is not a stage version of the old nostalgia-based ’70s TV series, with the Fonz. Nor is it a story taken from the classic song Happy Days Are Here Again. It’s a fifty-year-old absurdist play by Samuel Beckett. Which means—not fun. And not up my alley.
But possibly up yours. So let’s discuss. And please remember that, unlike many other critics, I keep it real. I’m not telling you to not go see it; I’m just giving you my impressions. And those of my friend Marc, who has always loved everything we’ve seen together. Until this one. And in the interest of fairness, I’m including what I observed from our fellow opening night audience members.
I could just tell you that I hated this very far-from-aptly-named play, but that would do you, and the production, a disservice. One of the good points about a theatre presenting this old play in 2019 is that there’s so much to say about it. Hence, the excessive length of this review.
All I had ever known of Beckett is his Waiting For Godot, which I had seen performed by Trinity Square actors at the University of Rhode Island when I was a little girl. And the character Lucky scared the bejeezus out of me. My parents always gave us so many cultural experiences, but at the time, I would have preferred to see only musical comedies and ballet. (Actually, those are still my preferences!)
But as weird and depressing as Godot is, it’s got nothing on Happy Days. To put it mildly, it was one of my least-liked theatre pieces ever. And the same goes for Marc, who could not stop giving me funny one-sentence reviews to share with you. (But being the genteel woman that I am, I cannot. But trust me, they were hilarious.)
But to be fair, the rest of the opening night audience seemed to enjoy it. (Well, the two-thirds of them who stayed for Act II, anyway.) I think you have to be an intellectual, or at least a pseudo one, and/or a big fan of Oscar-winner Dianne Wiest or Samuel Beckett, to enjoy it. Otherwise, it’s just The Emperor’s New Clothes, where people are afraid to say what they really think, for fear of not looking smart enough, (a problem I’ve never had. The first time I was on The Tonight Show, some of my pals from high school asked me why I was doing a “dumb act!” But I was just being myself; I didn’t have to display my high IQ anymore, like I did all through school! So I have no qualms about admitting I did not like, nor understand, this play.)
Right about now I’m glad that my review policy is to rarely tell you what an entertainment is about, so that you can discover it for yourselves, because I have absolutely no idea what was going on in this one!
But there are a few positives to this production. When the beautiful scalloped-bottom, crimson curtain is raised, we see a fabulous creative set by Izmir Ickbal. Granted, it’s of a dirt hill, but it evokes images of an old-timey beach visit for me, and I’m sure other equally interesting imagery for others. (Marc was also a fan of that visual.)
But I’m way too claustrophobic to even watch someone be stuck waist-deep in dirt for the entire first half, and then up to her neck in the second. (I didn’t think I could get any more claustrophobic than I was in Act One. But I was wrong.) If you’re not a fan of intricate blocking, this is the play for you!
The only movement is of the character going through her purse, looking for various items. Marc told me even that wasn’t of great interest to him because he sees me do it all the time! (I’m getting the thought that maybe I didn’t like Happy Days because the woman is me! Only if I had been the one performing it, with my fast-talking, it would have gone by in half the time!)
Also on the plus side, it was enlightened of Beckett to have written a piece that’s basically a monologue for a woman back in 1961. (There is also a male character, but he is seldom-seen and almost-as-seldom-heard.)
And you get to see a two-time Oscar-winner, Dianne Wiest, do all that work in person!
Actually, the best thing about Happy Days for me is that, to get more familiar with Dianne before my trip to the Taper, I caught-up with all my DVRed episodes of her just-cancelled sitcom, Living In Pieces, the day before. I had forgotten what a fun series it is!
So the blame for my many problems with Happy Days is not hers. At all. Her unique delivery and timing is actually the best thing about the show. The problem, for me, lies with the writing. So, if you haven’t figured it out by now, I’m not a Samuel Beckett fan. The weirdness of whatever this story’s premise is, coupled with the inane monologue, along with the direction, (which must be what made the speeches sooo slow,) are the culprits. (But from my post-show research, I discovered that the slow pace and stage directions are what Beckett dictated, so go figure.)
People who dislike certain shows as much as I do always come up to me on the way out to ask if I’m going to tell the truth in my reviews. Of course I am–I’m always honest! (Unless you ask me if you look fat; then I’m all about not hurting feelings. Unless you’ve crossed me in the past. Then watch out!) But, as the title of this e-zine states, it’s not about me, so I always try to give you other opinions when I observe them.
And that’s the case here. I was not a fan of this presentation, but the opening night audience gave it a standing ovation. Which Dianne Wiest deserved. Especially for taking on this crazy role to begin with. You’d have to pay me five million dollars to do even one performance of this nonsense!
Why did I see it, you may ask? Well, I don’t read full press releases because I want to experience a production with my own eyes. So, I did not realize it was Beckett or I might possibly have begged off. Absurdist theatre is how it’s characterized, and it is indeed that. I just went off the title, star, and picture on the invitation, which was quite interesting. So I misunderstood. Totally!
Every now and then the audience would laugh, but it seemed to me that it was increasingly more with relief than with amusement.
I was going to heavily suggest researching the story before you go, which I, unfortunately, did not. But I don’t think even that will help—I did it when I got home, but I’m still confused.
I’m sure that most people who have ever seen Happy Days will analyze it, but I think only Beckett knew what he truly meant by it all, and even then, I genuinely think he was just messing with us.
I guess that I can analyze it, as well, but that would seem more like writing yet another college paper than a theatre review. I could proffer that perhaps the characters were dead or dying, or it symbolizes the death of a marriage, or whatever other baloney I could come up with to satisfy my professor, (who I was probably dating, anyway.)
All I really care about in theatre is if I enjoyed it, an any level. Or if the time spent enriched my life in some way. So, sadly, I must admit that Happy Days did not do any of that for me. Except maybe to give Marc and me something to laugh about forever after.
I realized later that the production features a bell ringing from time to time, which I didn’t notice at all in Act I, and only a little in Act II. I’m guessing that perhaps it’s a death knell. As seventeenth-century poet John Donne wrote, (centuries before Happy Days was written,) “Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.” Perhaps that’s a clue.
To give you the full benefit of my extensive post-show research, this is what Beckett said about his bell: “Well I thought that the most dreadful thing that could happen to anybody, would be not to be allowed to sleep so that just as you’re dropping off there’d be a ‘Dong’ and you’d have to keep awake; you’re sinking into the ground alive and it’s full of ants; and the sun is shining endlessly day and night and there is not a tree … there’s no shade, nothing, and that bell wakes you up all the time and all you’ve got is a little parcel of things to see you through life.” Charming.
The weird thing is that I basically do this monologue every day, to Mr. X! Just like the male figure in Happy Days, Mr. X rarely answers (because he’s even more rarely listening,) yet I prattle on and on about what he might consider to be nothing. (But he is always laughing at my bon mots, thank goodness!) In Happy Days, the woman, Winnie, (whose name we know because she keeps mentioning it,) constantly tries to get a rise out of her companion, (whomever he might be,) Willie. And in her high-pitched voice, it is the most annoying moniker I’ve ever heard! Marc kept torturing me with it on the way home, and I told him, (jokingly, but really in all seriousness,) that if he ever invoked that name again, I’d have to end his much sought-after status as My New Best Friend!!!
I swear to you—my nutty nightly dreams are more interesting than this play! But even then, I wouldn’t foist them on any other living soul than Mr. X, (who, as we know from the previous paragraph, is not listening anyway!)
Marc queried that perhaps we would have liked the presentation better if we had been seated closer to the action. (We sat in almost the last row.) I had thought not, but maybe that would have helped. Then again, the Taper is known for having no bad seats, so perhaps not.
I do have to reiterate that many people, from all sections, left at intermission the night I saw it. But Act I is half the length of Act II, (thank the Lord,) so if you see the show, I really recommend just sticking it out for the duration.
So here are the take-aways from Happy Days: Dianne Wiest is an excellent actress on stage (as well as film and TV, the two mediums I already knew going in); Beckett’s works are for *e-word heads only; I never want to hear the name “Willie” ever again in life, (it’s now my “w-word”); and everyone should wear sunscreen every day to be prepared for horrible conditions. So, at last there’s all that. *[You know that I can’t even write that three-letter word. In case you’re new to my mishegas, it’s the thing that people make omelets out of.]
But, as always, I am grateful for the opportunity to see live theatre in a beautiful environment, with interesting audience members, and all of that is what the Taper affords us Southern Californians. And, of course, we all have different taste and concerns, so perhaps this show will be your cup of tea, although it is far from mine.
Let me leave you with this: Winnie tells us about a character, Mrs. Shower, who came by and asked her, “What’s the idea of you, what are you meant to mean?” I think she speaks for all of us!
Happy Days running through June 30, 2019
Mark Taper Forum 135 N. Grand Ave. 213-972-4400 www.centertheatregroup.org