At first glance it may seem like a curious pairing: Edward Albee's "The Sandbox" and Samuel Beckett's "Happy Days." But wait a minute.
Don't both plays deal with survival? The snappy old lady in "The Sandbox" may be simply the butt of an impatient progenitor's bad joke, and "Happy Days' " Winnie may be struggling against much more cataclysmic odds, but in the end they're both after the same thing: warding off death. Death is death. What's the difference if it comes as a result of global catastrophe or sly family imperatives?
The difference is in how we, the audience, perceive the battle. At the Mark Taper Forum where "Sandbox" and "Happy Days" constitute Round 2 of the "50/60 Vision" festival of "plays and playwrights that changed the theater" (there are 6 rounds, totaling 13 plays), it strikes this theatergoer as a cleverly ironic coupling.
"Sandbox" is an inspired curtain-raiser for the longer (though not long) "Happy Days." Albee's 15-minute wonder waltzes across the fourth wall on a whim and makes confetti of sanctimonious attitudinizing. It is Albee at his best: winking as he plays God and teases us with the summary dispatching of a tough old lady.
Grandma (Mary Carver, re-creating a role--are you ready for this?--that she played in the West Coast premiere 29 years ago) is gingerly "put away" by her piously solicitous daughter, known to us only as Mommy (Angela Paton, quaint as a middle-aged baby with a whim of steel), and her deadpan husband Daddy (Bill Moor, milquetoast extraordinaire ).
The human repository where they dump Grandma is a sandbox, watched over by an athletic Angel of Death (John Robert Lafleur), while a fifth character, a musician, performs at the unceremonious event.
Paton, a natural comic, can't resist milking a few of her laughs (or is this director Michael Arabian's idea?), but otherwise the production sizzles with preposterousness, made particularly amusing by Carver's sniffing irreverence.
This perfectly sets the stage for the sand heap that has poor Winnie by the waist (later the throat) in Beckett's "Happy Days."
The landscape is apocalyptic this time. Nothing there. Especially no life. And Winnie (Charlotte Rae) is already waist-deep in encroaching sand. When the relentless bell wakes her at the start of day, she makes the best of it. "Another heavenly day," she says, with feeling. Later: "Begin, Winnie . . . Begin your day, Winnie," is more uncertain as she checks out the landmarks: her black handbag, her parasol. And we're off on one of Beckett's most majestic, most enticing, most mysterious and anguishing plays.
Winnie is not quite alone. There is Willie (Moor). Willie, husband or lover, more dead than alive, but there, behind Winnie's sand heap and still breathing. At least. Someone to talk to. Willie doesn't always talk back, but he's good for a grunt now and then and, on especially happy days, good for a word or even a complete sentence. Once even a song. Oh, happy, happy day.
Winnie is clinging to sanity by going through life's daily rituals, what's left of them, under the broiling sun. Squeeze out a speck of toothpaste. Brush the teeth. Read the "label" on the toothbrush.
It's something to do.
Check out the contents of the handbag. Bring out the revolver--that ultimate reassurance. All must be ordered, parceled out, spooned carefully hour by hour, each thing in its time, on schedule, on cue, so no gap is left in which to die of sheer terror. Or silence. Above all, one must fill the dead air with sound; articulate words; gratitude, often; recite the enduring mercies like a rosary; like a diamond necklace; the little miracles that fill and force the time.
At the beginning, when Winnie is cheerful and breezy, we laugh.
When Charlotte Rae as Winnie is cheerful and breezy, it is impossible not to laugh. Is this woman for real? Is this meant to be funny? Oh, yes. Gradually we listen and learn. Gradually we begin to really hear the play. Winnie, even when performed by Rae-- especially when performed by Rae?--is the defiance of the species. Grace under pressure. Quiet resistance. Winnie against the dying world.
Because of her association with TV sitcom, casting Rae in the role was risky, but it was a brilliant stroke. Yes, there were isolated pockets of people at Friday's performance who still thought that anything that came out of Rae's mouth had to be just plain hilarious, but fewer and fewer as the play progressed.
Her cracking voice, her almost foolish matronly squeal occasionally slicing the air, the very ordinariness of this Winnie--nobody grand at all here, nobody messianic--endow the performance a creeping and ultimately gripping stature.
Director Carey Perloff wisely lets Rae be Rae, and by the time this play is over, you know this Winnie is as frail and conquerable as the rest of us. But much, much braver. The hush that fell on the house in the second half, when all that is left of Winnie is her head, above the sand--her frightened eyes, her endless concatenation of words, her unfathomable dignity--was no accident.
Rae had earned it. Bravely.
At the Music Center, 135 N. Grand Ave., March 30, April 6, 12, 18, 24, May 5 at 8 p.m.; April 22 at 7:30 p.m.; matinees April 29 and May, 12 at 2:30 p.m. Ends May 12. Tickets $22-$28; (213) 972-7373, (213) 410-1062, (714) 634-1300, TDD (213) 680-4017).