By: David Sheward
Sound and visuals combine to create a unique fused portrait of a desolate yet comic world in the current revival of Samuel Beckett’s rarely performed All That Fall. The playwright conceived it as a radio play for the BBC’s Third Programme in 1957 and resisted many entreaties, including one from Laurence Olivier, to see it performed on stage.
In a recent production from Dublin’s Pan Pan Theatre Company, performed a year ago at BAM, director Gavin Quinn had the audience seated in rocking chairs while recorded voices read the script. It was a fascinating and new way to experience radio and theater. In this current staging, previously presented in London, director Trevor Nunn has the intimate, Off-Broadway 59E59 space fitted out by designer Cherry Truluck like an old-fashioned recording studio with microphones dangling overhead and at the actors’ feet. The cast holds the scripts as if performing for the radio while Paul Groothuis’s soundscape creates their movements and that of their rural community, approaching trains and a torrential downpour.
The combination illuminates Beckett’s bleak vision of an isolated Irish town where the inhabitants soldier on with the business of life despite a lack of comprehension and purpose. Not much happens during the play’s 75 minutes. Arthritic, obese Maddie Rooney must trudge to the train station to meet her blind husband, Dan. Along the way, she meets various neighbors, each with his or her own tale of woe. When she finally arrives, the train is 15 minutes late and her husband refuses to tell Maddie why. On the long slog home, the couple is beset by rain and tormenting children. A little boy runs after them to return an item Dan left on the train. Maddie asks if he knows the reason for the delay. The boy reveals a small child fell from the train-a heartbreaking echo of an earlier revelation that the Rooneys had a child who died long ago-lightning crashes, the train roars, and the play is over.
The tragic circumstances are overlaid with comic moments, such as Maddie’s almost slapstick attempts to get in and out of automobiles and bicycles on her way to the station, and Dan’s deadpan dark pronouncements on the uselessness of existence. At one point, Dan quotes their minister praising God for his mercy, and the couple bursts into wild, sardonic laughter.
Eileen Atkins and Michael Gambon, two of Britain’s finest actors, perfectly capture Beckett’s comic-tragic take on the universe, as the clownishly sad Rooneys. Both balance the raucous humor with the rending ache of man’s isolation. Atkins’s flute-like tones are beautifully balanced with Gambon’s deep bassoon as Maddie and Dan slowly trudge along on the dirt path home and through life.
Nov. 11-Dec. 8. 59E59 Theaters, 59 E. 59th St., NYC. Tue 7pm, Wed 2pm & 7pm, Thu 7pm, Fri 8pm, Sat 2pm & 8pm, Sun 3pm. Running time 75 minutes, no intermission. $70. (212) 279-4200. www.ticketcentral.com