Ask yourself a question and be honest. Why do you go to the theater? You can be entertained in a crowd at the movies. You can see live music and dancing at a club. You can get first rate dramas with name actors on your phone during your morning commute, if that’s what turns you on. On Broadway, you might shell out two hundred dollars to see a “name” actor in the flesh, but why spend twenty on a bunch of anonymous Millennials in a home grown production? You may visit one of New York City’s many “classical” theaters to see productions of historically important plays — if you’re a historian — but does anyone, anyone outside of the theater that is, think that plays are educational or politically influential?
Ben Diserens’s new play Beckett in Benghazi is a satire on those theater folk far from the lights of Broadway who wrestle with such problems every day. The lights go up on two men who look like they are on the set of Beckett’s Endgame: Hamm is in his wheelchair and Clov is looking out two stage windows suspended from the ceiling. Three minutes into the start of Endgame the production manager stops the show to give notes. The actors break out of character, and chaos ensues.
It turns out that Hamm and Clove are Abe and Reed (played by Patrick Dooley and Adam Weppler, respectively); Nagg and Nell are Angie and Kevin (Rachel Joyce and Brendan McDonough). The production manager Lauren (Becca Ballenger) is thoroughly stressed because director Judy (Julie Voshell) has had them running tech for twelve hours, and for her part Judy arrives with an idea to change the production from the ground up. After hearing of the attack on the American embassy in Benghazi, Judy has decided to rename the play and set it in the Middle East. More chaos ensues.
“Nothing is funnier than unhappiness,” is perhaps the most famous line from Endgame, and many theatergoers fear Beckett intended it as a joke on his audience. Very little is as unfunny as French absurdist theater from the mid-twentieth century, especially when actors, directors and producers use it to promote themselves as “serious” artists. Beckett in Benghazi puts the funny back into suffering by putting the narrative back into Endgame. Of course, that is exactly what Judy, the director, is trying to do as well. Satirizing her crass attempt to capitalize on the political buzz generated by violence in a far off land is itself a crass attempt to capitalize on the disconnect between “art” and “life” that many artists claim as a justification for their lack of fame.
But in terms of pure entertainment, Beckett in Benghazi is a must-see for anyone who has spent any time at all in the theatre. The characters are ridiculously on point. At one time or another I have known versions of Abe, Angie and Reed. Julie Voshell is so good as a megalomaniacal, self-promoting, prima donna director I almost ran from the theater screaming. Every stock absurdity uttered by a director, every unconsciously egotistical insult spoken by an actor is distilled and served up for your comedic delectation. And the parody Endgame-in-Libya performed at the end of the play had the patrons screaming howls of laughter. It was probably the funniest, most genuine piece of comedy I have seen all year.