Destitute Arias

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This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk.

There's no acting prize for sheer stamina. If it did exist, this season it would most certainly have to go to actor Conor Lovett. Since such an award doesn't exist, I propose that after performing six straight nights of three-plus hours of Samuel Beckett monologues, the LA theater community owes Lovett a pint of Guinness... and perhaps a short glass of Jamison's.

It should also be said that anyone in the Freud Playhouse audience last week probably also needed--and earned--a stiff shot of Irish spirits after experiencing Mr. Lovett's long but illuminating performances.

Beckett won his Nobel Prize for writing in which "the destitution of modern man acquires its elevation," and on stage Mr. Lovett made this destitution palpably real. One performance in particular, a short drama titled "A Piece of Monologue," simply featured Lovett as a dying patient standing next to a street lamp. Watching this tableau and hearing the actor recite Beckett's brutally precise text was like watching cells perish at the molecular level. It was stunning, moving, frightening, unforgettable and impossible to fully understand.

Much in these two evenings was difficult to immediately comprehend. Beckett's writing, even if you're familiar with it, is dense, knotty, and often impenetrable. But these events, presented by Gare St. Lazare Players Ireland, made two things very clear about Beckett.

One: contemporary theater is still trying to catch up to him. The monologue or one-man show is among the most prevalent--and accepted--forms of drama today and this is largely due to Beckett's legacy.

Two: Beckett's work is, at its heart, comic. In the five pieces performed by Mr. Lovett (one piece titled "Enough," was played by Ally Ni Chiarain) the actor's timing always managed to bring Beckett's bleak but deep humor to the forefront--and he did this without ever pandering for cheap laughs.

Finding this balance of dignity and comedy is no small feat--especially when performing programs that are Wagnerian in length. One of the few performances in recent seasons that rivals Mr. Lovett's--not in terms of stamina, but in sheer "how do they do it" wizardry is Judy Kaye's portrayal of Florence Foster Jenkins. In the 1940's, Jenkins was the Ed Wood of vocal recitalists: positively incapable of singing on key. Her recordings make William Shatner's albums sound like Caruso--yet that didn't stop Jenkins from booking Carnegie Hall for her now infamous 1944 recital.

Stephen Temperley's play Souvenir tells the story of Jenkins' life leading up to and including the Carnegie event. It's a slight work, but Kaye's performance as the batty diva-in-her-own-mind is a treasure.

First, Kaye has great comic timing--lines like "my performance of 'Ave Maria' is known to evoke tears," are delivered with a deadpan that's pitch perfect. Then there's Kaye's musical talent. As Florence Foster Jenkins, the Tony Award winning singer is as pitch imperfect as imaginable.

Temperly's play is too long and by the end it flirts dangerously with camp. Kaye's performance keeps it honest. Even at her most hilarious--and some of her songs are laugh-out loud funny--Kaye never turns Florence Foster Jenkins into a mere punchline. Like Lovett in Beckett's monologues, Kaye is able to retain her character's humanity even in the most humiliating of circumstances.

As fate would have it, both Kaye and Lovett were performing only minutes from each other on the Westside. As with most things in theater though, this serendipity lasted only a matter of days--but connoisseurs of truly memorable acting take note. I contacted Mr. Lovett by phone in Ireland, where--for those who are impatient--he's performing the Beckett pieces through the end of the year. He says there are already unconfirmed plans to bring the Beckett program back to the states next year. Likewise, it was recently announced that Judy Kaye will perform another short run of Souvenir in January. Granted, the performances will take place in Arizona, but this is a small journey for those in pursuit of priceless imperfection.

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk for KCRW.