To watch Eileen Atkins (Mrs. Rooney) and Michael Gambon (Mr. Rooney) working together is, well, a privilege. These two are such skilled performers that what they do is layered, intricate – and looks easy. So fluid and supportive are they that one forgets this is “play-making” and thinks perhaps it is just life being lived as we watch. Which of course it is.
Their partnership is the glorious part of All That Fall, which refers not to the season but to Psalm 145: The Lord upholdeth all that fall, and raiseth up all those that be bowed down which is the only utterance that gives them a great walloping laugh. It is one we all need, because this is a not a good lifetime they are sharing.
On this day Maddy Rooney is making the trek to the train station to greet her husband Dan. He is a blind man who always needs a helping hand, and on this June day, because it is Dan’s birthday, Maddy’s being there to greet him will be his present. On the way to the station she meets several of her sad brethren, Christy (Ruairi Conaghan) with his hinney (horse/donkey mix), Mr. Tyler (Frank Grimes) on bike, Mr. Slocum (Trevor Cooper ) in his automobile and Mr. Burrell (James Hayes) and Miss Fitt (Catherine Cusack) at the train station. Each encounter sinks lower and lower into the bog of miscommunication. I estrange them all. They come towards me… full of kindness…A few simple words…from my heart… and I am all alone… once more…
Mrs. Rooney, like her forefather Scrooge, has the ability to make roses droop. As a matter of fact, the only person on whom she does not seem to have this effect is her own husband. The two of them are lock-step together in examining the vagaries of life. As they leave the station he tells her Once and for all, do not ask me to speak and move at the same time. I shall not say this in this life again. This being Beckett, there is a feeling of being caught in a drip of time where Mr. Rooney does indeed say this again, many times over.
As the couple stumbles home they are caught in a rainstorm that quite suits their disposition. All they can do is cling to one another and focus on the warm fire they will soon have at home. Before they get there however, they are stopped in their tracks by a boy bringing news of death on Mr. Rooney’s train.
And we are pitched off the caboose of I think I am following this smack into the Bull’s Eye of Beckett-land. Hokey Smokes indeed.
The staging of this play, that was originally written for the radio, is a noble attempt to think out of the box. For me, however, it did not succeed. Trying to present this as a play, but still keeping the “sound effects” (that need some serious attention paid to cues), and asking the actors to move from hanging mic to hanging mic with no audible change in volume was distracting in the extreme. It is as though Mr. Nunn didn’t think that an audience would be interested in watching a radio play, complete with a sound-effects person on stage. Having attended several Prairie Home Companion broadcasts as well as the excellent A Christmas Carol produced by WNYC (both using the exceptional skills of Fred Newman) I can tell you that a radio play is captivating.
Instead of letting the actors focus on Beckett’s text, Nunn is asking them to focus on their blocking and mime talents as well as the sound cues. It is only the good talents and graces of Atkins (who is standing the entire 75 minutes) and Gambon that keep this production afloat. The rest of the cast is well meaning but not quite up to the task.
Beckett is more than enough. Why the flotsam and jetsam was added remains a mystery. But, fortunately for the audience, Atkins and Gambon are a match for this mighty text.
All That Fall – By Samuel Beckett; directed by Trevor Nunn; designed by Cherry Truluck; lighting by Phil Hewitt; sound by Paul Groothuis; associate director, Anthony Biggs; producer/general manager, Richard Darbourne; production stage manager, Jess Johnston. Presented by Richard Darbourne Ltd. and Jermyn Street Theater, in association with Gene David Kirk. At 59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street, Manhattan; (212) 279-4200, ticketcentral.com. Through Dec. 8. Running time: 1 hour 15 minutes.
WITH: Eileen Atkins (Mrs. Rooney), Michael Gambon (Mr. Rooney), Ruairi Conaghan (Christy), Frank Grimes (Mr. Tyler), Trevor Cooper (Mr. Slocum), Billy Carter (Tommy), James Hayes (Mr. Barrell), Catherine Cusack (Miss Fitt), Liam Thrift (Jerry) and Jess Regan (Voice-over).