How you react to “Happy Days” at the Taper may depend on how you feel about revisiting absurdist theater. If you were around in the ‘60’s you probably saw “Happy Days,” along with “Krapp’s Last Tape” and “Waiting for Godot.” They were the apogee of the genre. Samuel Beckett was the god of the absurdist playwrights.
The stage is a mound of dirt, punctuated by desiccated bits of chaparral and backed by a cloudless sky. Winnie (Diane Wiest), only her torso emerging from a hole, is the cherry on the top, so to speak. Speak she does for almost two hours plus intermission. She is incongruously dressed in a strapless gown and holds a large tote bag which contains odds and ends as well as the necessities, such as a tooth brush, a comb, and an umbrella. She reaches into her bag using the grooming aids, commenting on them, and tossing the items around her on the dirt. She also tosses out a gun. Husband Willie (Michael Rudko) had apparently tried to kill himself with it some time in the past. Ostensibly she is talking to the mostly silent and unseen, obviously henpecked husband. His occasional brief, irrelevant, responses bring forth great enthusiasm from her, reminding her of happier times, and egging her on to more chatter. She hopes to engage him too in the memories. Never mind if he is hot roused. The stage is encircled by very old fashioned footlights and framed by a swaged red velvet curtain.
In Act I Winnie chirps on … and on, “Oh, this is a happy day.” The passage of time is announced by a bell, one to awaken her and one for sleep. Each day she repeats her routine. Her refrain is a bit reminiscent of Eric Idle as the false Messiah in “The Life of Brian.” He is nailed to a cross and leading the other nailed-to-their-cross heretics in chorus after chorus of “Always Look on The Bright Side of Life” complete with whistling. There is a heavy sprinkling of double entendres to which the opening night audience over reacted; it seemed more appropriate to Monty Python than Beckett.
Winnie and Willie visibly age. In Act II she is buried in the hole up to her chin. Time marches on and she strains to keep up the same sort of prattle. It sounds even more hollow. The enigmatic gun is still on the mound along with the grooming flotsam. It is never clear how or why they came to be stranded on this mound or exactly when it will end. Sunk in dirt to her chin it can not be long. Act II reflects this in its length, 30 minutes as opposed to Act I at 90 minutes.
Reading this review over my shoulder my grandson inquired, “but what is the arc?” A fair question. The best I could do is say that it has a barely perceivable curve defined by the passage of time and the futility of the human condition. Winnie is a plum part for any actress. Diane Wiest carries it off well. She embodies the spirit of the aging beauty, keeping up appearances, papering over anxiety with prattle, reminiscing about the past without facing the reality of the future.
Director James Bundy has staged “Happy Days” in an indeterminate time past: the heavy formal curtain, the old footlights, the gown and the tattered parasol give us a few clues. He has hewn close to Beckett’s stage directions. It certainly quenches one’s thirst for the early ‘60’s and any desire to revisit the absurdists. The question is, how strong is your thirst?