Big Fun in Purgatory

"Beckett Shorts" is my kind of Super Bowl: four short works by the most intense and radical playwright of the 20th century, directed by Joanne Akalaitis—a giant of the avant-garde, and plenty intense and radical herself—with incidental music by Philip Glass, the best-known living composer. (And—speaking of incidental—Akalaitis's ex-husband.) It features Mikhail Baryshnikov, who's never done Beckett before and admits he's still struggling to understand the plays: "Why the hell I'm doing this, I don't know." But he also maintains that the production was "the opportunity of a lifetime," and he's got a unique and startlingly accurate take on just what kind of pieces these are—"like children's plays for adults."

These four?plays, which open this week at the New?York Theatre Workshop, constitute a mini grand tour of Beckett's sensibility. As Baryshnikov says, "I feel they're all about?the same person, although they're very different characters." The pantomimes "Act Without Words I" and "II" (1956), mute exercises in futility, show the fondness for vaudeville routines and silent film that marked the earlier "Waiting for Godot." "Rough for Theatre I," from the late '50s but not published until 1976, is a companion piece to "Endgame" (1957), with two survivors in a post-apocalyptic landscape, mutually dependent and repellent. And "Eh Joe," an adaptation of Beckett's 1965 television play, evokes both "Krapp's Last Tape" (1958), with its guilt and regret over an abjured love, and the great trilogy of novels ("Molloy," "Malone Dies" and "The Unnamable"), in which a man alone can't still the voice in his head.

Akalaitis takes some liberties. In "Act Without Words I," a solitary man (Baryshnikov) is teased by a power from above with a carafe of water he can't reach, cubes of different sizes he can't quite stack high enough to get it, a rope with which he can't lasso it and a tree from which he can't hang himself. Akalaitis uses two cubes instead of Beckett's three, perhaps figuring that his calibrated tedium could be too tedious these days. But where's Beckett's "huge label inscribed WATER" on the carafe? Now, that was funny.

In "Act Without Words II," two men, A (Baryshnikov) and B (David Neumann), sleep in sacks and get nudged awake, each in turn, by a prod from offstage; in turn, each puts on and takes off the same set of clothes, then gets back in his sack. Repeat. When the disheveled A gets out, he prays and takes pills. The natty B brushes his teeth, consults his watch and studies a map. Nothing changes. Beckett doesn't describe the goad, which comes out on wheels; Akalaitis makes it a silvery harpoon, and accompanies its entrances with menacing "Jaws"-like music by Glass. Beckett specifies no music, but the effect isn't vulgar: it's scary. For the TV play "Eh Joe," the invasive camera movements—closer, closer, closer—obviously had to go. Here we get Baryshnikov's face projected onto a scrim, behind which he sits motionless on a single bed; the woman who's only a voice in the teleplay speaks her lines onstage.

Only a purist as fierce as Beckett himself could object much to such pragmatic tweakings, and his deep affection for actors might have extended to Akalaitis's cast—especially Bill Camp, as the domineering, wheelchair-bound B in "Rough for Theatre I," a compound of?tattered majesty, rage and needy desperation. When?B?first spies the blind beggar A (Baryshnikov), he bestows—forces—on him the name Billy, as if contemptuously assigning him a role.?("Do you like company, Billy?" "Do you like tinned food, Billy?") When Camp?nastily enunciates the word "har-mon-i-ca," we forgive Akalaitis for changing Beckett's "mouth organ." In "Eh Joe," Joe (Baryshnikov) endures the relentless voice of Woman (Karen Kandel), an?ex-lover?now living in Joe's head, torturing him with memories of his lifelong self-absorption and of another lover who killed herself. Baryshnikov needs only to sit still (which he does admirably) while his previously filmed, projected face registers self-torment. But he gives the tantalized man in "Act Without Words I" an intellectual air, with his well-tailored suit and glasses, playing against his helplessness better than a more clownish approach. In both pantomimes, he mimes awkwardness as if he'd broken down and analyzed each micro-move.

Surprisingly, Baryshnikov does best in his only speaking role, the blind "Billy": scraping on his fiddle, pushing B's wheelchair in the sand with a child's delight, groping about in dejection. His heavily accented English is a wailing whine, and he shrewdly exploits his distinctive face: normally handsome, here both impish and hangdog, like Art Carney as Ed Norton. As an actor, Baryshnikov is fully up to the commanding onslaught of Camp's B—while his character can barely hold his own. He can't tell you how he's doing it—"probably actors should never explain how they think"—but it works. Akalaitis's whole program takes only a little over an hour, but it's as full and satisfying an experience as you could ask for, even without Beckett there back-seat driving.