Through Jan. 4, 2004, the Century Center for the Performing Arts, off Union Square, is serving a heady brew, surnamed Beckett/Albee, concocted by a couple of seasoned — highly seasoned — theatrical alchemists. The breakdown: three parts Samuel Beckett (Not I, A Piece of Monologue and Footfalls) and one part Edward Albee (Counting the Ways). Boil and bubble, indeed!
The "boys" have been out together before, famously, debuting Oct. 26, 1959, in Berlin — in German — with a potent combination of Beckett's classic Krapp's Last Tape and Albee's first vision onstage, The Zoo Story. To arrive in that kind of windfall can affect a fellow, and Albee is the first to admit his life was forever changed by the experience. For starters, he got to meet the late, great Irish playwright, who would become such a big influence on his own output. A year after their Teutonic triumph, the same double bill was reprised at Greenwich Village's Provincetown Playhouse — in English — to equally clamorous acclaim.
A rematch seemed in order, but it has taken 43 years to achieve. This ball started rolling as a result of a salute to Beckett at Town Hall, put together by The New York Times's Mel Gussow. The program was directed by Lawrence Sacharow; Albee spoke of his transforming encounter with the revered playwright; and Marian Seldes performed her first Beckett in public (Rockaby). So satisfying was the experience that the three pitched another Beckett/Albee event to producer Liz McCann, and she bought it.
Above and beyond the title, Beckett/Albee has "Together Again" stamped all over it. Counting the Ways marks the third stage marriage of Seldes and Brian Murray, their last being by Albee at the same Century Center address (The Play About the Baby). Seldes' association with Albee goes back to her own Tony-winning work in his 1967 Pulitzer Prize winner, A Delicate Balance. She and Delphi Harrington, who plays her mother here in Footfalls, number among Albee's Three Tall Women, which won him his third and latest Pulitzer Prize in 1994; that particular play was directed by Sacharow and produced by McCann, who perpetuated the Albee resurgence that followed (The Play About the Baby, the Tony-winning The Goat or Who is Sylvia? and now this). Flanked by a phalanx of veteran theatrical soldiers (Terry Allen Kramer, Roger Berlind, Scott Rudin and Nick Simunek), "Generals" McCann and Daryl Roth are betting there are still serious, cerebral, discerning audiences out there, and, as is her habit, she is putting her money where her mouth is.
Appropriately enough, the evening opens with a mouth — Seldes' — pin-spotted in a tiny shaft of light that leaves the rest of her face to pitch-black darkness. A torrent of words spews forth for (as the actress primly points out) "16 minutes, if Beckett is to be served." The play is Not I, and, for anyone who has seen it — Billie Whitelaw and Jessica Tandy both did it in New York — it is an unerasable image. "What an amazing, amazing concept," exudes Seldes. "One person on the stage talking, and all you see is her mouth — in fact, the role is called Mouth — but behind that mouth is a whole life. I can't describe what is coming out of her mouth. It's a steady stream of words. There's something compulsive about her. She has to tell her story, and nothing can stop her. It's difficult to do because you don't want to act it. You want to tell it."
While Seldes catches her breath between Becketts, Murray delivers A Piece of Monologue, a seldom-seen playlet that Beckett wrote for the Mabou Mines' late David Warrilow. It's the first time Murray has done Beckett since the fifties, when he was a child actor playing the loquacious Lucky in a South African production of Waiting for Godot. He blinked and, now, is playing a dying old man in his eighties.
"The play's about the irony of dying the moment you're born," he says. "I just have a feeling he's a writer, maybe a filmmaker, because a lot of what he talks about is in imagery of stage and film. So I just worked out this thing for myself that he's seeing his last film or last play and, through that, finds a kind of peace."
After intermission, Murray and Seldes join hands for Albee's Counting the Ways. "Edward thinks of it as a vaudeville — in fact, I think that was what he was going to call it," Murray says. "It's very short scenes from a marriage, and it has to do with how do you answer the question, 'Do you love me?' That's the first line of the play. She asks, and he says, 'Why do you ask?' It goes on from there, but it's never — how can I put this without making it sound silly? — there's never really a serious problem. It's not frothy. God knows, you don't talk about froth and Albee in the same breath, but it's fun. Funny."
Both actors feel Beckett/Albee is a filling evening in the theatre. "Brian said the other day, 'It's like the Becketts are the main course, and Counting the Ways is the dessert.' The contrast is marvelous. And the use of words. Each of these playwrights has a voice that no one else has. It doesn't remind you of anyone else. Original. They are absolutely original, and — together, in their separate ways — they've changed our theatre, allowing other 'original voices' to follow. It's part of the history of the theatre I've lived through."