First of all, this is a terrific production of one of Samuel Beckett's most accessible plays, first performed in 1961. If you've never heard of the Irish existentialist playwright (1906–1989), or the plight of his immobile heroine, stop reading now and just go see it.
New City Theater, 1404 18th Ave., 271-4430, newcitytheater.org. $15-$20. 8 p.m. Thurs.-Sat. Ends March 24.
Now that the newbies have left the room, we can discuss the chatty, middle-aged Winnie (consummate Beckett pro Mary Ewald), who's buried to her navel in a giant sand mound. Nearby, her husband Willie (Seanjohn Walsh) takes refuge from her tidal yappings in a sand hole. Though it's not clear what got them there or how they survive, we are gradually apprised of some rules of their existence. Their waking day begins and ends with a bell. The sun is always shining. Sundries in Winnie's shopping bag are running out. In her boredom, Winnie supplements these immutable laws with invented ones, including forcibly chipper edicts ("Mustn't complain!" "It is a happy day!") and the hilariously self-stinting "Do not overdo the bag."
As usual, Ewald is spellbinding. Though her talent merits more audience than New City's tiny venue can accommodate, it's a pleasure to be seated this close. Decked out by Nina Moser (who also co-designed the set with director John Kazanjian) in pearls, dainty feathered swimming tank, and meringue-like hat, her articulate, ritualistic gestures depict a person trying to fashion a varied world from the sparest of tool kits. Ewald is a master magnifier of humanity, with the tiniest details—like the jiggling of her pale arm flesh while hoisting a parasol against a merciless sun—enhancing pathos. Poor sun-scorched Willie, glimpsed only rarely and briefly, exists like a plant in a lonely lady's apartment: He's a comedic excuse for Winnie's one-sided conversation. Yet within these constraints, Walsh shines, deadpanning his few lines—including one particularly delectable one about the propagation of ants, which he ad-libs from Latin as "formication."
In New City's artfully cramped production, the play somehow expands Winnie's life, and ours, with details that are futile and empty on one level, yet oddly, inexplicably lovable on another. Throughout the 90-minute two-act, I was as restless as I've ever felt in a theater seat. Just as Beckett would have wanted.