Review: Wrestling With a Master in ‘On Beckett’

Review: Wrestling With a Master in ‘On Beckett’

Even with that omission, this is a replete bill of fare, filled with perceptive and appealingly humble observations on bringing Beckett’s language to life. Mr. Irwin speaks of subjects as diverse and interrelated as the pronunciation of “Godot,” Beckett’s Irishness, his “sensitivity to violence,” and the “mobility” of the pronouns he uses, turning self into splinters.

There are showbiz anecdotes as well, accounts of working with actors like Nathan Lane and Robin Williams (in two different versions of “Godot”), as well as the directors Joseph Chaikin and Mike Nichols, whose voices Mr. Irwin channels in quicksilver impressions. But the crux of the show — designed by Charlie Corcoran (the spare, geometric set) and Michael Gottlieb (the mutable lighting) — is Mr. Irwin becoming a receptacle for the holy, and unholy, spirit of Beckett.

His delivery early in the show of a fragment from “Texts for Nothing, #1” is a taut internal dialogue, a tower of Babel within a single mind. What follows becomes increasingly physical, as Mr. Irwin introduces props including a cane, variations on the bowler hat, bow ties, an unruly microphone and a mortar board.

These are the tools of the pantomime funny man. But Mr. Irwin has always been expert in reminding us that the abiding appeal of silent clowns like Chaplin and Keaton is rooted in existential exasperation. As he says, “The word existentialism tends to put us to sleep — but questions of being — of survival — keep us awake.”

And what an obstacle course it is, Beckett’s rutted path from womb to tomb. His physical world, with help from the unwieldy instrument known as the human body, trips up its inhabitant at every step. Small wonder that moving even an inch becomes a battle against inertia.

Mr. Irwin traces this wrestling match with physical exactitude, pointing out that Beckett was “a writer acutely attuned to silhouette.” In this sense, angles make the man — watch Mr. Irwin instantly assume a burden worthy of Atlas with drooping shoulders and buckling knees — but so do clothes.

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