NEW YORK - The credits read like Who's Who: major director (Joanne Akalaitis), major composer (Philip Glass), major installation artist (Alexander Brodsky) designing sets, major lighting designer (Jennifer Tipton). If all that weren't enough, the New York Theatre Workshop's thrilling production of four short plays by the late great Samuel Beckett stars Mikhail Baryshnikov.
"Act Without Words I" and "Act Without Words II" are wordless metaphors of life as we live it. Their clarity is intensely moving, and their silence requires - and gets - absolute silence from the audience.
In "AWWI," Baryshnikov, dressed in contemporary street clothes, is flung from the wings onto the stage. The floor is covered with white sand and brilliantly lit; one by one, basic survival items are lowered from above: a wonderfully laughable tree, a pitcher of water, a pair of scissors. We watch Everyman learn and cope, but each time the necessary item is withdrawn. Each time he is summoned offstage by a whistle, then tossed back into the arena.
In "AWWII," we see two bumpy heaps under green cloths. A man (Baryshnikov) emerges after a comically pointy goad (i.e., alarm clock?) pokes him. He goes through his morning routine (prayer, pill-taking, dressing) until his day is over and the other man emerges (David Neuman) and goes through his routine (calisthenics, toothbrushing), checking his wristwatch incessantly. And so on and so on.
Repetition is fundamental to each, as it is to all of Beckett's work ("Habit is a great deadener"). Repeating the repetition is the scrim that falls between the plays; on it is projected a grayed-out, translucent film of what we have just seen, with all kinds of implications of invasive surveillance. The sense of endlessness, often getting understanding laughs from the audience, is made crushingly intense by Baryshnikov's eloquent physicality and tragic face.
"Rough for Theatre I" provides the immense relief of human voices. Baryshnikov is a blind violinist who meets a man in wheelchair (Bill Camp), and if you're a Becketteer, you know we've been here before, friends. Beautiful and spare and cruel and pitiable, this is distilled Beckett, splendidly performed.
The last and longest piece, "Eh Joe," is the only flawed production. Written for television, what Beckett called "peephole art," "Eh Joe's" translation to stage misses the genre-specific point, even though the simultaneous video projections try to provide the original effects.
A man (Baryshnikov) sits alone on the edge of his bed, persecuted by a woman's voice in his mind. Violating the script's intention, the woman (Karen Kandel) is visible, dressed in shockingly bright clothing and high heels. Her inflection often sounds as though she doesn't understand the meaning of the lines she's speaking.
But never mind. Nothing's perfect, as nobody knew better than Beckett, and Beckett Shorts is a major and deeply moving theatrical event.
Written by Samuel Beckett. Directed by Joanne Akalaitis. Music by Philip Glass. Sets by Alexander Brodsky, costumes by Kaye Voyce, lighting by Jennifer Tipton, sound by Darron L. West, video by Marit Tal.
Cast: Mikhail Baryshnikov, Bill Camp, Karen Kandel, David Neumann.
Playing at New York Theatre Workshop, 79 E. Fourth St., N.Y. Through Jan. 20. Tickets $65 ($20 Sunday evenings). Information: Telecharge 800-432-7250.