Eileen Atkins as Maddy Rooney in Beckett's "All That Fall"

Eileen Atkins as Maddy Rooney in Beckett’s “All That Fall”

A phlegmatic, curmudgeonly old woman in a small Irish village some hundred years ago complains bitterly about the horribleness of life as she makes her way to the train station to meet her husband who is returning on the afternoon train. Along the way she meets other villagers: the dung monger, a buffoonish neighbor on a bicycle, a man in a motorcar with whom she had a flirtation ages ago, Miss Fitt whose name denotes her awkwardness, and the train station manager who has the unpleasant duty of telling her the train is delayed. Her husband arrives, not on time but soon enough, and together wife and husband walk slowly back to their house, stopping now and again to share a laugh and a cry.

Told in this way the plot sounds a little thin, but in the hands of master dramatist Samuel Beckett the story is merely an excuse for paradoxes and allusions that lead to more serious contemplations. The title All That Fall is taken from Psalm 145, and the reciting of the verse is the occasion for uproarious laughter for Mr and Mrs Rooney, who appear to be the embodiment of the phrase “gallows humor.” The play is dense with symbols of sterility, futility and absurdity. Like Beckett’s other famous mid-century play Waiting for Godot, All That Fall rejects meaning of any sort — teleological, narrative, metaphysical — and descends straight from dark comic absurdity at the opening to nihilistic bathos at the end.

Some people believe Beckett is a master comedian and think it is obligatory to laugh at his scatological, nihilistic jokes. I am not one of those. If Beckett is making a funny, he’s doing it at the expense of the people who think they “get it,” the kind of cerebral killjoys who find slapstick rude but make exceptions for Shakespeare. The value of All That Fall is precisely in its ability to annoy rather than entertain, in its studied tediousness and the way it tries to make the audience uncomfortable about laughing at others’ misery. At the end of the day (and the end of the play) you should be crying, not laughing at the spectacle you have just witnessed.

Trevor Nunn, one of perhaps five individuals in the pantheon of great living directors, understands this. His production embodies a few Beckettian paradoxes to make the point. All That Fall was written as a radio play, and Mr. Nunn’s staging alludes to this fact without becoming a slave to it. (Tedium and ridicule are no match for ineptitude, which is what a literal staging of a radio play would suggest.) Eileen Atkins and Michael Gambon, also in the pantheon of theater greats of the English speaking world, deliver their roles with such bitter gall that you wonder if anyone else could have communicated the profundity of human misery Beckett must have felt composing his radio drama.

Seeing Ms. Atkins perform was a special treat for me because the first time I heard her – rather than saw her – was on BBC Radio, lo these two decades past, when she played Regan in The Renaissance Theater Company’s radio version of King Lear. To close my eyes and feel the icy edge of her voice was to shiver with dread at the tragic movement at the core of All That Falls. In fact, the (almost) octogenarian Atkins fills the room so full of the despair that attends on superannuation — the total loss of hope and humor characteristic of old age — that you might think her entire career was preparation to play this role.

In a word, this is a singular theatrical event. However you feel about High Modernist nihilism, any lover of theater should see this production.

At 59E59 Theaters