The Complete Lost Works of Samuel Beckett…
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
June 10, 2006
The Complete Lost Works of Samuel Beckett... begins with a brilliant existential joke: a table with only two legs, on which sits a preserved brain in a fish bowl filled with formaldehyde, is propped up by a ragged and desolate man. He is, for all intents and purposes, the third leg, and he can't quit or the bowl will slide onto the floor and break.
Here's the punchline: after an embarrassing accident during which he wets himself, he momentarily forgets his purpose and lets go of the table...and the bowl doesn't fall to the floor. The job he has been doomed to spend eternity doing turns out to be not only thankless but pointless.
In this wonderful brief sketch, the world view and canon of Samuel Beckett are celebrated and gleefully, smartly punctured: it's a perfect parody. Unfortunately, nothing that follows in Complete Lost Work equals this first piece, "Table Talk," intellectually or comically.
The one that comes closest, "If," is also the most irritating. That's because it consists of an old lady in a rocking chair silently rhapsodizing to a recording of Bread's pop song "If" (that's the one that starts "If a picture paints a thousand words / Then why can't I paint you?"). She listens to it over and over. And over. And over. By about the eighth repetition, the subtext becomes plain: we've arrived in a kind of hell on earth, and because we're bound by the conventions of live theatre, we can't escape: we have to wait until somebody stops playing the damn record. (Eventually someone does, but the authors don't really have an ending for this piece; it just stops.)
(The joke on the surface of this sketch, by the way, may not be as obvious to folks who don't know this song, a witless, infectious melody whose lyrics make no sense whatsoever.)
The other supposed "lost works" presented on this bill include a gloomy puppet show allegedly written by a seven-year-old Beckett and the punningly titled "Foot Falls Flatly" which weds Beckettian monodrama to Riverdance. The material is funny but not uproariously so, though I suspect it might be if it were being performed in a college bar at two in the morning and everyone in the room was drunk and a graduate student. I wondered several times during the show what someone entirely unfamiliar with Beckett's aesthetic would make of it.
A framing device—disclosed by the piece's full title, which is The Complete Lost Works of Samuel Beckett as Found in a Dustbin in Paris in an Envelope (Partially Burned) Labeled: "Never to be Performed. Never. Ever. EVER! OR I’LL SUE! I’LL SUE FROM THE GRAVE!!!"—is less effective than the seven parody "lost works" themselves. Its suggestion that fringe theatre promoters are exploitative charlatans sat uneasily with me: cheap laughs at its creator/producers' expense, but what happens when an in-joke is broadcast to a crowd of outsiders?
The creator/producers are, by the way, writers Greg Allen, Ben Schneider, and Danny Thompson and director-producer John Clancy. Clancy's staging is tight and unobtrusive. The show is a splendid showcase for Schneider, who plays the aforementioned table leg and Bread-loving old lady, along with several other characters; he's quite marvelous in all of his guises here, and made me eager to see him tackling other material. A pair of expert comic actors, Matt Oberg and David Calvitto, play Schneider's "employers" and take a few roles in the alleged Beckett pieces, but they are paradoxically very much second bananas here, albeit skillful ones.
Complete Lost Works has been touring the world, literally, since its New York debut in FringeNYC 2000. Having missed it the first time(s) around, it was fun to catch up with it at long last.