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Review: ‘Beckett 5' at the Odyssey: five plays, two hours, one sinister ending

Beth Hogan, left, Diana Cignoni and Sheelagh Cullen in one of five short plays that make up "Beckett 5" at the Odyssey Theater.
(Enci Box)
Theater Critic

Just as the short stories in collections by Anton Chekhov, Flannery O’Connor, Grace Paley and Alice Munro are meant to be savored one small masterpiece at a time and not gobbled up indiscriminately like a box of assorted chocolates picked up at the pharmacy, so too the compact plays of Samuel Beckett can be appreciated only with an unhurried attention to their precisely rendered detail.

The bill of five short works in “Beckett 5,” clocking in at just under two hours at the Odyssey Theatre, certainly rounds out an evening of theater. But plays ought to be measured by the scale of their experience rather than by their duration. As Edward Albee once commented about his playwriting, “There’s no such thing as a one-act play. All my plays are full-length.”

This isn’t to say that the dramatic offerings artistic director Ron Sossi has staged at the Odyssey need to be seen separately. But their sculptural qualities, the way silence and gesture are as intrinsic to Beckett’s dramaturgy as language, must be scrupulously honored.

There are resonances and divergences among “Act Without Words II,” “Come and Go,” “Catastrophe,” “Footfalls” and “Krapp’s Last Tape” that help to fill out a complex picture of Beckett’s artistry. The Irish playwright’s aesthetic is severe but not monolithic, as is sometimes assumed.

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The silent screen-inspired clowning of “Act Without Words II” contrasts with the laconically patterned looniness of “Come and Go.” The political sting of “Catastrophe” (dedicated to playwright and then-political prisoner Vaclav Havel) shows a very different side of Beckett from the obsessive interiority of a more characteristic work like “Footfalls.” And “Krapp’s Last Tape,” one of Beckett’s greatest achievements in the theater, reveals the heartbreak under the savage absurdism.

Norbert Weisser in "Beckett 5."
(Ron Sossi)

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This KOAN Unit production tries to give each briefly flickering work its due. But signs of haste and the kinds of carelessness that used to drive the famously stringent Beckett mad undermine the effectiveness of some of the acting. (The talented veterans Alan Abelew, Beth Hogan and Norbert Weisser, who make up the ensembles for “Act Without Words II” and “Catastrophe,” sometimes seem to be performing in a not very Beckettian limbo.)

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The physical world of these plays should have the lavish care of a museum installation. The blocking of the first three plays seemed somewhat capricious to me until it became clear that “Act Without Words II,” “Come and Go” and “Catastrophe” were working around the set requirements for “Footfalls.” (Beyond Audrey Eisner’s eye-catching pastel costumes for “Come and Go,” the production design seemed to be done on the fly.)

A technical mishap disrupted “Krapp’s Last Tape,” but Weisser fortunately wasn’t thrown off his game. More distracting was the overdone red makeup on Krapp’s nose (yes, he’s a drinker) and the unnecessary italicization of some of the more emotionally resonant lines. Delicately meticulous even when comically coarse, “Krapp’s Last Tape” collapses when pushed.

“Footfalls,” which Lisa Dwan performed to more potent effect last year in a trio of works by Beckett at the Broad Stage, was too theatrically blurry to allow Diana Cignoni and Sheelagh Cullen to be truly haunting. “Come and Go” (performed by Cignoni, Cullen and Hogan) seemed even more minor than Beckett’s term for it: dramaticule.

“Catastrophe,” oddly enough for a work that is something of an outlier in the Beckett canon, made the biggest impression. A depiction of an artist working under totalitarian rule, the piece resonated with our own politically turbulent moment.

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If the Odyssey bill didn’t tickle me with existential dread (the modus operandi of Beckett’s art), the sound of the roaring crowd at the end of “Catastrophe” froze my blood with its sinister image of what a society can become.

‘Beckett 5’

Where: Odyssey Theatre, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., L.A.

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When: 8 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays; ends March 5

Tickets: $25-$34

Information: (310) 477-2055 Ext. 2 or www.OdysseyTheatre.com

Running time: 1 hour, 55 minutes

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charles.mcnulty@latimes.com

Follow me @charlesmcnulty

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