After two Oscars and two Emmys, Dianne Wiest finds meaning in Beckett
“I just want to do Beckett’s ‘Happy Days’ over and over again,” Dianne Wiest declared between nibbles of a poached egg. “I don’t want to do anything else, because nothing else comes near it.”
Samuel Beckett’s 1961 absurdist classic, which begins previews May 15 at the Mark Taper Forum, was the reason for this late-morning breakfast with the two-time Oscar winner, whose high-strung vulnerability was an essential comic shade on Woody Allen’s vintage filmmaking palette. Wiest is reprising her performance as Winnie, the determinedly cheerful chatterbox who tries to engage her uncommunicative husband as she sinks into a mound of earth.
The production, directed by Yale School of Drama dean James Bundy, began at the Yale Repertory Theatre in 2016 before moving the following year to Theatre for a New Audience in Brooklyn. The play, a portrait of a woman chirpily confronting the inexplicable riddle of the human condition, has become something of an obsession for Wiest. For a week last October, she performed excerpts of “Happy Days” while enclosed in a “sculptural costume” designed by artist Arlene Shechet in a free public offering in New York’s Madison Square Park.
“A cop would stop and listen,” she recalled. “Kids were running around. I can’t remember what horrible thing was going on in the world but people were affected. They needed to hear this now. I felt so useful.”
With Beckett it gave me an incredible sense of security and confidence, because I felt held by him. He worked everything out himself.
Actress Dianne Wiest, on Samuel Beckett’s meticulously detailed stage directions
The two of us were sitting at a window seat at a bright and busy French bistro on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, a stone’s throw from the rambling apartment (“a great big classic seven”) where she raised her two daughters. She pointed longingly in the direction of the building, still grieving the loss of her old address.
Wiest had flared up in the gossip columns a few years ago when she told an interviewer she didn’t think she could afford her rent any longer. This is the kind of story the New York tabloids feed on — a beloved New York film actress being priced out of Manhattan’s berserk real estate market. Homelessness was never in the offing. Blushing at the memory of a story gone viral, she explained it was simply the reality of a single mother shouldering hefty tuition bills amid the vagaries of an acting career.
Finally persuaded that it would make more financial sense to buy a place, she relocated a mere subway stop away. But for Wiest, the new neighborhood isn’t the same. The stores, the restaurants, the life on the street are not the old stores, the welcoming restaurants, the familiar throng. Her memories are here, not there. She revealed this with a sense of embarrassment at her own wistfulness — her dreamy nostalgia evoking Beckett’s Winnie, who leans back in her mound and apostrophizes the “old style.”
Some actors when being interviewed remind you that they are actors. Wiest reminds you that she’s a human being. For those who adored and intimately understood her chronically insecure, touchingly twitchy character in Allen’s “Hannah and Her Sisters,” the first of Wiest’s Oscars, meeting her in person is like reuniting with the friend you always knew her to be.
I’ll confess I was surprised when I heard she was doing “Happy Days” at Yale. I knew she was an accomplished stage actor who had developed her craft early on at nonprofit theaters, including the Taper, where she appeared in “Dusa, Fish, Stas and Vi” in 1978. I’d seen her numerous times onstage, but I always associate her with that string of Allen films that began in 1985 with “The Purple Rose of Cairo” and ended in 1994 with “Bullets Over Broadway,” for which she won her second Oscar playing the turban-wearing, martini-swilling diva Helen (“Don’t speak!”) Sinclair.
Wiest said most people recognized her from her two seasons on “Law & Order,” an experience she gently described as a “nightmare.” She was hired to replace Steven Hill but told producers she couldn’t just be a female substitute for him, to which they assented before placing her in what she called “a straitjacket.” A two-time Emmy winner, Wiest isn’t in the least bitter. “I’m not a TV watcher,” she said. “If I had just watched, I’d have understood you don’t want to change the Coca-Cola recipe that works brilliantly.”
The journey with “Happy Days” in the last few years has been fitted around her shooting schedule for the CBS sitcom “Life in Pieces.” (“I have to support the play,” she said.) But the Irish playwright’s place in her career has a long and impressive history. Wiest was directed by Alan Schneider, Beckett’s handpicked American interpreter, on a 1976 bill at Arena Stage in Washington, D.C., that included “Play” and the American premiere of “Footfalls.”
“The Alan Schneider!” I interjected.
“It amazes me,” she said. “I didn’t know what I was doing. I was still a kid, but I felt deeply drawn without knowing why. I felt the same about ‘Happy Days.’”
Beckett, in a characteristically self-effacing letter, advised Schneider on the casting of Winnie in the play’s world premiere at the Cherry Lane Theatre in New York: “Don’t rush it in any case, without adequate actress it hasn’t a hope in hell.” In another letter, he wrote, “Terrible role, all evening alone on stage and for last 20 minutes without a gesture to help voice. Perhaps it’s just madness.” Yet for a stage actress wanting to test her mettle, Winnie has become one of the grandest challenges in the repertoire.
Wiest pulled out a copy of the play, but it wasn’t the one she wanted. “I have another copy and it says 1994. So it’s been ...”
“Wow, 25 years,” I interrupted.
“I was working on the play in a workshop, and I couldn’t even figure out how to memorize it,” she said. “Olympia Dukakis was teaching at the time, and she said you just have to do it. But I couldn’t figure out whether to memorize the line and then the stage action, or do I memorize putting the cap down and then the line. I just memorized whatever he wrote in order and worked on that for, like, 10 years.”
Why so long? “I was just really terrified,” she said. “And then it occurred to me that if I didn’t do it soon, I wouldn’t be able to do it, because I wouldn’t have the capacity to memorize it.”
Wiest’s conversational mode is sweetly apologetic, self-deprecatingly so at times. She referred to herself as a “failed autodidact,” but the sharpness of her mind is unmistakable. When I mentioned that the actor Alan Mandell, who had worked with Beckett directly, described the plays to me as scores, she played down her own talent in this regard before underscoring the importance of the observation.
“I’m not musical at all, and I don’t sing a note,” she said. “I have no talent that way whatsoever, and it’s my greatest yearning to be able to do that. But with Beckett, the musicality takes you along, so much so that in rehearsal at Yale they handed us a new script and there was a line that didn’t seem right. They kept saying it was right, but then they discovered that they had left out a word. I, who am nonmusical, could hear what was wrong, because the music was off.”
Beckett was as ruthlessly meticulous in mapping out the stage action as he was in composing the verbal text. Wiest admitted it was unusual to have her movement be so prescribed, but as Bundy noted in an email exchange, she’s “a dedicated interpreter who is brave enough to find freedom in the form.”
“If anyone aside from Beckett or maybe Woody told me when I needed to sit down or to move across the room, I would say, ‘Hang on. Let me see what I can find, because it will be better than carrying out your orders,’ ” she said. “But with Beckett it gave me an incredible sense of security and confidence, because I felt held by him. He worked everything out himself at his desk before he asked an actor to do it.”
Veterans of Beckett’s work in performance can attest to the physical and mental hardships of being confined. At Yale, Wiest worked with an Alexander Technique teacher, who devised movements that wouldn’t be visible from the waist up to keep the blood flowing in her feet and legs. And because she’s “a little claustrophobic,” she had an “escape hatch” designed so she could free herself from the mound in case “there was a fire or something awful happened.”
As she charmingly recounted her fears, I found myself imagining her fateful audition with Allen that landed her a role in “The Purple Rose of Cairo.” Wiest told the story as though it happened yesterday: “Woody was reading the Daily News but claimed to be looking at my résumé. They asked if I would mind if they took a Polaroid. I said, ‘No, not at all,’ but then I closed my eyes. I said, ‘Wait, my eyes disappeared. May I ask for another one?’ Woody laughed. Why would he think that’s funny? But he cast me.”
Wiest, whose father was a psychiatric social worker in the U.S. Army before becoming a college dean, grew up around military bases. (She called West Point, N.Y., the closest thing she has to a hometown.) She attended college “for, like, five minutes,” ran off with a traveling Shakespeare troupe and “failed constantly in public.” Before Allen, she was a working stage actor with just a few screen credits. After him, she was an award-winning star.
“Well, he picked me out of the gutter, as he likes to say,” she said, flashing her trademark crinkly-eyed smile. “I had done a film, ‘Independence Day,’ about an abused woman. Pauline Kael dismissed it. Later, when she was writing for the New Yorker, she recanted. But if she had only given me a kind word the first time around, I might have had a different trajectory.”
Not that Wiest has any complaints about becoming famous via Woody Allen. “He spoiled me for all other directors, except maybe Tim Burton, who was exceptional. Woody not only wrote brilliantly and directed brilliantly — he acted. He really knew what he was talking about, and hardly anybody does.”
Would she work with him again? There was no hesitation in her answer: “People often ask me and I say, ‘Oh, my God, in a second.’ But I would never ask because I think I’m reminiscent of the whole Mia [Farrow] era. She was the star of the films I did with him. I don’t think he wants anything to do with those days. So I think my time is over as far as working together, but he will always be a friend.”
When asked if she felt any professional uneasiness about her association with Allen after the scandals with Farrow and the children, she made clear where her loyalty lies. She says she doesn’t believe the evidence supports the allegation that Allen sexually abused Dylan Farrow, thinks the media has “obscured” the truth and doesn’t see this as having anything to do with the #MeToo movement.
“It’s appalling on so many levels,” she said. “It’s so Greek what happened to them. What happened to Mia was truly awful and tragic, but her revenge was equally awful and tragic.”
Comedy comes naturally to Wiest, but tragedy has been much on her mind while performing Beckett’s tragicomedy. The irony of the title is as blazing as the “hellish” sun that beats down on Winnie, whose parasol is a thin defense against an atmosphere that has become (prophetically) less hospitable.
Wiest has compared “Happy Days” to “Hamlet,” and not simply because the play is dense in allusions to Shakespeare: “There’s nothing I know of that can touch the complexity that’s found in ‘Hamlet,’ other than Juliet, which is strange given her tender age, and ‘Happy Days.’ Where else can you find a part that deals with the problems of the mind and the meaning of existence?”
Bundy said the rehearsal journey with Wiest had been intensely textual: “In its fierce absurdity, the play divines not only an existential problem, but also a joyous relationship to Shakespeare, Milton, Shelley — and vaudeville: Words may fail, as all of us will eventually, but you can take a lot of pleasure in them on the way down.”
Both director and actor agree that, in Bundy’s words, “the result for audiences has been people walking away saying that they saw themselves in the play.” Wiest acknowledged that theatergoers might find it initially startling to see a half-buried woman sleeping in the middle of the stage.
“But I feel people go into themselves the way an actor goes into herself, and it becomes a community of exploration,” she said. “Beckett’s communion is so complete, you can’t help saying, ‘How could he have written this without me? How could he know so much about my own peculiar life?’ ”
Where: Mark Taper Forum, 135. N. Grand Ave., L.A.
When: Previews start Wednesday, opens May 22, ends June 30. Performances 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 2:30 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sundays (many exceptions; check with the theater)
Tickets: $32-$115 (subject to change)
Info: (213) 628-2772, CenterTheatreGroup.org
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