If McNally's plays suffer from a dearth of ideas, there's a plethora of light bulbs going off in Samuel Beckett's 1961 landmark Happy Days, surely one of the most bizarre plays ever written. It features two characters: Winnie, a relentlessly optimistic woman who begins the play symbolically buried up to her waist and ends it buried up to her neck, and her husband, Willie, who spends most of the play either crawling around on all fours or reading the newspaper, occasionally interrupting Winnie's monologue. On the one hand, it's a simple play. Winnie is immobilized, and she has nothing left to do but talk and find ways to wile away the time. On the other hand, it's fiercely complex, a rather horrifying portrait of the futility of existence, as well as a curiously uplifting story about courage in the face of meaninglessness.
It's also a very challenging play to read, watch or produce. And since challenging is always good in our book, the Rude Guerrilla Theater Company's decision to mount Happy Days as the debut show in its new downtown Santa Ana space deserves nothing but praise.
I wish the same could be said for the production. Director Dave Barton (who is also a Weekly theater critic) accomplishes something I've never seen before: he focuses attention on the relationship between Winnie and Willie. Audiences are likely to leave the theater feeling sorry for the couple's fate-entirely missing Beckett's dreadful majesty, the intellectual paralysis and existential horror he means to convey. Although Barton gets the humor right, the more potent stuff is mostly absent from this production.
Perhaps the intent was to lighten the intellectual freight in order to help make Happy Days happier for contemporary audiences. But I'm not sure this play needs it. This is postmodern myth and metaphor; it doesn't need to feel relevant or updated or contemporary as much as it needs to feel real. To do that, one master must be served: the text. And that doesn't happen often enough to make this Happy Days work as effectively as it could.
The Lisbon Traviata at the Theatre District, 2930 Bristol St., Costa Mesa, (714) 435-4043. Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m. Through Dec. 5. $15-$20;Happy Days at the Empire Theater, 200 N. Broadway, Santa Ana, (714) 409-9853. Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m. Through Dec. 6. $10-$12.