With acting greats Eileen Atkins and Michael Gambon landing in Samuel Beckett’s “All that Fall” at 59e59, the highly anticipated autumn British invasion is in full swing –– an artistic occupation that includes, from Shakespeare’s Globe, Mark Rylance as a chilling and thrilling Richard III and as a hilarious and touching Olivia in “Twelfth Night,” which co-stars Stephen Fry in his Broadway debut as Malvolio as you’ve never seen that misunderstood character. Then there are X-Men and equally compelling stage greats Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart in Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot” and Harold Pinter’s “No Man’s Land.”
Who needs to go to London?
59e59 hosts the annual Brits Off Broadway festival each spring, bringing highlights from the West End. And now they’ve imported this “All that Fall,” which was done by the little Jermyn Street Theatre in London and enjoyed a West End transfer to the Arts this year. Directed by the legendary Trevor Nunn, a former artistic director of the National Theatre, it's something we are lucky to have.
While I’ve been a devotee of Beckett since high school — before he won the Nobel Prize in 1969, thank you very much — I’d known but never heard his 1956 radio play “All that Fall,” the journey of aging Mrs. Rooney (Atkins) to pick up her blind husband (Gambon) at the train station. We meet the characters they encounter along the way in a small Irish town, from earthy Christy the dung carter (Ruairi Conaghan) to prim Miss Fitt (Catherine Cusack), who helps Mrs. Rooney up a hill.
In giving players names such as Miss Fitt, Beckett is making no effort to be subtle in his stereotyping of rural types. But while the setup borders on vaudeville, much like his “Godot,” the stuff that comes out of these forlorn mouths is some of the most sophisticated and trenchant philosophy of our time — without using any highfalutin words.
Mr. Slocum (Trevor Cooper) pulls up in his car and asks, “May I offer you a lift, Mrs. Rooney? Are you going in my direction?” Mrs. Rooney: “I am, Mr. Slocum. We all are.” Existentialism made simple –– and funny to boot. But that’s Beckett’s genius.
When seeking Miss Fitt’s help, Mrs. Rooney pleads, “Your arm! Any arm! A helping hand! For five seconds! Christ, what a planet!” (Sounds like the kind of thing many of us want to scream at outrages from cutbacks in food stamps here to deadly poverty and disease in the Third World.)
This was written as a radio play and rather than alter it too much, Nunn and his able designers of set (Cherry Truluck), lighting (Phil Hewitt), and notably sound (Paul Groothuis) have created a sort of world in between the radio studio and the stage. Rather than describe how that’s done, I’ll leave it to unfold on its own for you. Feel free to close your eyes from time to time and just listen.
For such nearly dried up characters, “All that Fall” is juicy with scatology and sexuality, coupled with morbidity and digs at religion. It’s amazing that Beckett got all this past the BBC censors of the time because it still has the power to scandalize.
While all characters sit on the stage, Mrs. Rooney is at the center of it throughout and Atkins manages to make her trip from weary to wearier immensely entertaining and poignant without being sentimental. When she reunites with Mr. Rooney, some melodramatic revelations ensue, pumped up by Gambon’s defensive bombast.
The last laugh in the play is shared by the Rooneys when Mrs. Rooney relates what the scripture text for tomorrow’s service will be: "The Lord upholdeth all that fall and raiseth up all those that be bowed down.” After sitting through “All that Fall,” you’ll understand, too, what a bunch of bullshit that is.
Beckett said he sank into a deep depression divesting himself of this wonderful play. I haven’t felt more lit up in a playhouse in a long time.
ALL THAT FALL | 59e59 Theaters, 59 E. 59th St. | Through Dec. 8; Tue.-Thu. at 7 p.m.; Fri.-Sat. at 8 p.m.; Wed. & Sat. at 2 p.m.; Sun. at 3 p.m.; no Thanksgiving performance : $70; $49 for members at 59e59.org or 212-279-4200