Bleak playwright Samuel Beckett and certifiable psycho-drag loon Dina Martina have more in common than you might think—and Beckett's Happy Days (currently at New City Theater) paired with Martina's Ample Wattage! (currently at Re-bar) are two grotesque tastes that taste grotesque together.
On the surface, they're as different as can be: Beckett was an Irish writer who was born on Good Friday, decided he'd rather live in France, had a face like the North Sea during a winter storm, gazed into the abyss and saw a few jokes, and was once stabbed in the chest by a pimp named Prudent. (The pimp visited the writer in the hospital, where Beckett asked why he'd stabbed him. "Je ne sais pas, Monsieur," the pimp said. "Je m'excuse." Beckett dropped all charges, partly because he found the pimp pleasant to talk to.)
Dina Martina, on the other hand, is a wannabe chanteuse with frighteningly bad makeup and delusions of grandeur. Created by Grady West in 1989, Dina is a triple threat of tone deafness—musically, culturally, and linguistically—and her cabaret shows are something you might see in a ratty piano bar on the wrong side of Palm Springs or Las Vegas, if the star had been fried from years of taking psychedelics like they were vitamins. In Dina's world, gifts are "jifts," margarine is "marGRRine," and her favorite empanadas, made by her accompanist Chris Jeffries, are "soft on the outside but crunchy on the inside—like babies!"
Beckett and Dina share a gift for communicating the blithe horror of banality. Beckett is starker and Dina is gaudier, but they're both hellish vaudevillians.
Happy Days mostly belongs to Winnie, described in Beckett's stage directions as "about fifty, well-preserved, blond for preference" and, for the first act, buried up to her waist in a large conical mound that looks like an anthill. Winnie is a prattler. Trapped in her mound, she chatters about whatever pops into her head—the past, the future, the sun, her parasol, and the contents of her large handbag, which include a hairbrush, a cosmetics mirror, and a pistol she took from her husband years ago so he wouldn't do anything desperate.
Her only audience is that husband, the henpecked and mostly monosyllabic Willie, who lives behind her mound, out of sight but very much on Winnie's mind. As she says to him, flipping Descartes's cogito ergo sum: "I talk, therefore you are."
Like some bored wives of a certain age, she oscillates between resenting her husband and condescending to him. "Poor Willie," she says. "No zest for anything, no interest in life." (By which she means insufficient zest for her.) She's prim and fussy, queen of her own dung heap, both intrigued by and afraid of the rest of the world.
Nothing really happens in Happy Days—in many ways, the tone is the action. The program at the New City production quotes Susan Sontag on Beckett's gift for taking a pile of nothing and churning it into a disturbing something: "Normally people on stage reflect on the macro- structure of action... They ask: Am I going mad? Will I ever get to Moscow? Should I leave my husband? Do I have to murder my Uncle?... Beckett is the first writer to dramatize the microstructure of action. What am I going to do one minute from now? In the next second? Weep? Take out my comb?"
Beckett didn't write any easy roles for actors, but Winnie is especially tough—the actor, stuck in the ground, has to give texture to an 85-minute monologue spoken by an unnaturally dull and one-dimensional character. But Mary Ewald, directed by her husband John Kazanjian, pulls it off. She has an appropriately light, oblivious touch with Beckett's puerile puns. ("There was a time when I could have given you a hand," she tells Willie. "And then a time before that again when I did give you a hand. You were always in dire need of a hand, Willie.") Ewald is also handy with Beckett's physical comedy. She leverages a moment in the second act, when Winnie is buried up to her neck but straining her eyeballs to look at her own face, into a routine worthy of Lucille Ball.
If Winnie's head is a barren place to visit, Dina Martina's is terrifyingly Technicolor. In Ample Wattage!, a show of all-new material, she sings off-key covers of Tom Tom Club and Propellerheads, and trots out video clips of her upcoming screen appearances. (In the first, a trailer for a nonexistent movie titled Ranchy, she plays a pioneer woman in a gingham dress with her trademark gash of scarlet lipstick.) Like Winnie, Dina is also a prattler. She smiles and babbles about her favorite drink—hot Sprite—and the issues of the day. When it comes to gay marriage, for example, she thinks homosexuals have gotten ahead of themselves. "Get the vote first!" she says, "and marry something later!" And: "No marriage is truly complete without divorce." It's like listening to the dinner-table conversation of someone in the middle of a psychotic break.
As with Winnie, Dina's magic isn't so much what says as how she says it. She's oblivious to her puns and malapropisms, so we laugh with her and at her, which gives every joke an extra bite of discomfort. They're each a caricature of a certain kind of person from opposite ends of the 20th century, Winnie too boring to believe and Dina too bonkers. But they're both grounded in reality, not just in the cultural flotsam of their eras, but in how people actually think and behave. There's a little bit of Winnie and a little bit of Dina in each of us—and that's the most terrifying thing about them.