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New York City Theater

"All That Fall"
59E59 Theaters

It’s not the journey’s end; it’s the how you get there. Laugh till you cry, cry till you laugh – that’s the inevitable formula. That’s Samuel Beckett, nowhere more apt than in “After the Fall,” his funny-sad existential take on old age.

In a season already bursting with brilliant British actors (Mark Rylance, Ian McKellen, Patrick Stewart), along come two of the finest, Eileen Atkins and Michael Gambon. They’re legends and they’re “together again,” as a movie ad might put it. That they’re appearing in a small off-Broadway house only adds to our intimate enjoyment.

Written as a radio play, the 1957 “All That Fall” is both hilariously tragic and sadly comic. Scripts in hand but barely referred to, the cast, under Trevor Nunn’s sterling direction, imaginatively creates a quotidian vitality. There’s life in every footfall, every cow’s moo, every donkey’s bray, every dove’s cooing, just as there’s death in the literal demise of a child or a hen and the offstage music of “Death and the Maiden.”

On the surface, the tale is of Mrs. Rooney’s journey to pick up her blind husband at the train. Along the way, she meets several neighbors, getting a lift from one, leaning on the arm of another, and is always aware of nature around her.

It’s Beckett’s great gift that he can make the simplest of lines reverberate, yet, somehow, avoid pretense. Talking about what a nice day this is, Mrs. Rooney says, “Will it hold up,” repeating the sentence “with emotion,” as the script says. For sure, whatever “it” is will not hold up forever. Beckett comments on his artfulness when Mrs. Rooney says, “I use none but the simplest words, I hope, and yet I sometimes find my way of speaking very bizarre.”

Atkins is a caustic, courageous Mrs. Rooney. She subtly lets us in on the subtext of her and her husband as an elderly pair living life with as much zest as they can muster in a world whose meaning escapes them. Matching her is the equally celebrated Michael Gambon as the irascible, resigned Mr. Rooney.

As they wind their way home, they talk of their lives, culminating in what is to be their preacher’s upcoming text: “The Lord upholdeth all that fall and raiseth up all those that be bowed down.” Laughter, uproarious laughter, follows. The mocked can mock.

--David A. Rosenberg
Nov. 22, 2013

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