"Have you no respect for misery?"
This question, typical of Samuel Beckett's double-edged black humor, is asked by an old woman trudging along an Irish country road in "All That Fall." Variations on this despair are further illuminated in "Krapp's Last Tape."
But this question might also serve as promotional slogan and consumer warning for "Beckett Speaks," the Company of Angels' respectful staging of the Nobel Laureate's early short plays. Beckett fans will appreciate seeing these rarely produced pieces. But those unfamiliar with his satirical portraits of human misery will probably remain perplexed by the late author's popularity.
No doubt such ambivalence is precisely what Beckett would want. "All That Fall" was originally written in 1956 for radio and when staged can become uncharacteristically realistic. The Company of Angels shrewdly distorts such naturalism by letting us watch the technicians creating the sound effects. While old Mrs. Maddy Rooney (Peg Shirley) labors to a train station to meet her blind husband Dan (Dick Welsbacher), technicians delightfully construct animal sounds and weather conditions.
"I use none but the simplest words, I hope," the old lady sighs to herself, "and yet I sometimes find my way of speaking very bizarre."
This confession is Beckett's aside to his audience, and provides a clue to a private anxiety about his work. "I will only take credit for making fundamental sounds," he once said, denying philosophical intentions. The Company of Angels signals its understanding of this by focusing on speech. Each actor enunciates with a clarity that's been precisely honed by director Kenneth R. Klimak.
"Krapp's Last Tape" is on the surface more bleak than "All That Fall." An elderly writer celebrates each birthday alone, reciting into a tape recorder the past year's triumphs and the next year's ambitious plans. But the old man's loneliness grows ever more desperate as he impatiently listens to previous tapes. Welsbacher, a retired professor, adds haunting echoes from his own youth by employing tapes he used in another staging 25 years ago.
The defeated Krapp, squinting under a bleak lamp at the turning tapes, hears his youthful confidence with a developing awareness of loss. Krapp is Beckett's imagined worst-case scenario of himself, an endgame portrait of the artist as a lonely old man who can't go on.
It's Beckett's voice from the grave we hear at the Company of Angels, and it remains an eloquent testimony to the human condition and to his genius.
* "Beckett Speaks," Company of Angels, 2106 Hyperion Avenue, Silver Lake. Wednesdays-Thursdays, 8 p.m. Ends June 2. $12. (213) 466-1767. Running time: 2 hours.