The Right Brain Project. By Samuel Beckett. Directed by Aaron Snook. With Bries Vannon, Vincent L. Lonergan, Lena Bloom, Ralph Knowlson. Running time: 2hrs; no intermission.
Theater review by Kevin Thomas
The Right Brain Project has done two great things with absurdism: made it immediate, and made it focused.
The audience is ushered into a solitary room by Clov (Bries Vannon), a gaunt young man summoned to witness his patriarch die. Only Hamm (Vincent L. Lonergan) did not die—remaining on the cusp of life as years turn into centuries and the outside world ceased to exist. Chalkboard walls contain a lifetime of scribbles and hints of when things still changed. The invalid Hamm is bound to his leather chair in the center of the room, from which he directs Clov through the pointless routines of their day. But Clov believes “it must be nearly finished,” and has set chairs around the perimeter for us to see the end.
As there’s no house light to dim, the audience is illuminated the same as the cast: I was surprised how wonderfully exposed the set is. It’s the difference between watching the room and being in the room, right there with Clov and Hamm, often inches away from key props. All of Beckett’s details and stage directions—the clomping step of Clov’s boots, repeated gestures, small but significant objects—gain massive impact when they’re claustrophobically close. Absurdism’s, well, absurdity can make it difficult to enter the world of the play—not so here.
The production keeps the performances focused on Hamm’s retreat into what is familiar and unchanging in the face of death, including his self-styled martyrdom. Clov is a slave who caters to Hamm’s feelings, who justifies his pointless wants by responding to them. Lonergan’s Hamm is irritatingly familiar for such a strange character. It’s uncomfortable to confess you’ve experienced it: the old man who wants the world to settle before he dies, and stay comfortably the same so that all his stories remain relevant. While Vannon as Clove shows great physicality, his deliveries can often be stilted and awkward in a trap that Beckett’s odd dialogue invites.
It’s not a flawless production, by any means. The staging makes the absurdism easy to engage, but it’s also exhausting for two hours with no intermission. A half-hour could easily be cut, if not more. And if the performances are lively, they’re also not quite human. The emotional, sympathetic core of the characters eludes us. It becomes a more artificial play as it goes on. Maybe that’s just more absurdism.