Perpetual Comedy and Heartbreak at Happy Days–Ends May 5

Mary Ewald and Seanjohn Walsh in Beckett's Happy Days (Photo: Lindsay Smith)

New City Theater’s production of Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days has been extended to May 5 (tickets $10-$20). See it because it’s only slightly less iconic than Waiting for Godot. See it because it finely balances comedy and heartbreak. See it because of the attention it brings to time and space and hope. See it, if for no other reason, than for the simple sideshow novelty of seeing a woman buried up to her waist and then some.

The set-up, for the uninitiated, is that Winnie (Mary Ewald) is buried in a low mound resembling a large anthill. She spends much of her time completing her routines. Vitally, these are accomplished while nattering at her husband, Willie (SeanJohn Walsh), who is in a nearby hole of his own.

Winnie’s routines largely involve a bag full of objects, most all but worn out. Light blazes in the sky constantly and a bell indicates the start and end of each day. Under these circumstances Winnie’s gratitude for the slightest definition—whether a nail file or the coming of the bell is perfectly understandable.

Though she is determinedly happy through much of the play this Winnie is most interesting in her moments of weakness. The prattle is impressive and Ewald believes so hard in the prattle that we believe it right along with her only to be caught off guard when she suddenly can’t bear up any more and breaks down.

What’s more, while Winnie speaks directly toward the audience for most of the play, with little evident interaction with Willie, the fourth wall has rarely been more palpable. This is all the more true when Winnie tells of being watched by the last humans she has seen, a couple who are spectators yet clearly not part of our audience.

The technical side of this production is excellent. The set puts all its work into the mound with gorgeous results but the simpler gauze surround is no slouch either. The costumes are nearly perfect. Of particular note is the tall, thin feather on Winnie’s hat that amplifies each of her few movements.

Lights are suggestive without defining anything too clearly and the projections are as bold and bright in their execution as they are in their conception. The sound design is also top notch, perfectly transitioning the audience from the everyday into Winnie’s world.

While those riveting moments of weakness are more prominent in Act II, they did not achieve their potential at a recent performance, through no fault of the production. The second half of Saturday evening’s production mostly came out the loser in a protracted battle with a man and his endless supply of lozenges.

This had the audience literally on the edge of their seats, presumably to escape the sound and attempt to immerse themselves deeper in Winnie’s predicament. Winnie got the upper hand as the play neared its conclusion, but there was little left to salvage. We sat immobilized in our chairs, grasping at all we could glean from the stage, waiting for the bell and the final curtain.

New City Theatre may be the most cultured spot in the city and this production is an asset to their space and production history. If you go, do everyone a favor and go easy on the lozenges.