Volume 20 Issue 20 | Sept. 28 - Oct. 04, 2007

Courtesy Origin Theatre Company

Roberta Maxwell in “The Shape of Metal,” directed by Brian Murray, at 59E59 Theaters through Sunday.

Beckett, bootless, not waiting for Giacometti

By Jerry Tallmer

Bert Lahr, who claimed, or pretended, not to understand one word of a play he was starring in, the 1956 Broadway production of Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot,” would I think have burst out laughing if he’d lived long enough — he died in 1967 — to take in the American premiere of Thomas Kilroy’s intense, pressure-cooked “The Shape of Metal” at Off-Broadway’s 59E59 Theaters.

 In “Waiting for Godot,” Lahr, as Estragon, the desolate down-to-earth tramp, made a great deal of pulling his battered boots off and on, smelling them, cursing their painfulness, leaving them sit downstage and empty for the audience to contemplate while all else was happening. This of course was partly Beckett, partly director Herbert Berghof, partly — in the doing — old vaudeville clown Lahr himself.

 Okay, now to this other play, “The Shape of Metal,” in which a British sculptress named Nell Jeffrey — played here by Roberta Maxwell — is telling one of her two daughters (the other has disappeared 30 years earlier) about a magical day and night once spent walking around Paris with two brandy-gulping spiflicated geniuses, sculptor Alberto Giacometti and playwright Beckett.
Beckett had been emphasizing the importance of sturdy footwear. “The fitting,” he said, “the fitting is all-important,” like a bloody salesman behind the counter. “Nobody,” Giacometti announced, “nobody notices shoes.” Now this seemed to enrage Sam, who was, indeed, given to very occasional outbursts of incomprehensible rage. But Giacometti didn’t stop there. “The foot,” he declaimed, “touches the ground, so! And is frequently embedded there.” He demonstrated, his back to me, the torn white coat, the mop of wild hair, the cane to one side, like Chaplin in repose, and — do you know — his two feet, splayed, did seem to sink into the floor. Beckett stormed at this. To my astonishment he began to pull off his boots, a pair of prized Austrian or Swiss walking-boots with curious tassels which apparently he had brought back with him from Germany. He removed these treasured objects and held them aloft above his head like a trophy … “Regard!” he yelled and, as always happened when he was in a fit, the Irish brogue came out.
 “My father was Irish, my mother Scots, so I’m an Anglo-Irishwoman like the character I play — 100 percent Celt,” Toronto-born Roberta Maxwell said one recent afternoon at a watering hole a few blocks from where “The Shape of Metal” was rehearsing. “Brian will be along any minute,” she said. “He’s at a meeting where they’re trying to decide if the table should be 6 inches lower, or 4 inches. It’s crucial decisions like that that make plays what they are.”

 She has been in plays in New York and everywhere else, ever since Robert Whitehead and Zoe Caldwell brought her with them from Canada when they were doing “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie” on Broadway in 1967.

 Johannesburg-born Brian Murray, an actor who directs, a director who acts, and a New Yorker since Broadway’s “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead,” 1967, in which he was Rosencrantz, is in his present capacity the director of this production of the Kilroy drama that bowed at Dublin’s Abbey Theatre in September 2003.

 “In March 2006,” said Roberta Maxwell, “I went to Ireland to visit my family in Ballincard House, village of Birr, County Offaly, where they’ve lived through thick and thin for 200 years. An actor friend of mine said: ‘Oh, while you’re there, you should go meet Thomas Kilroy.’ So straight off the plane I went to visit him and his wife. And after a gorgeous dinner, Mr. Kilroy — a typical Irish writer/scholar — said: ‘You know, I think I have a play for you.’ This play, it turned out.”

 Enter Brian Murray, breathless and apologetic. He is a very nice man indeed, and if you think he can’t smile and smile and be a villain, you never saw him opposite Marian Seldes in Edward Albee’s “The Play About the Baby.”

 After affirming that he too is Anglo-Irish (Irish father, Scots mother), and concurring in Ms. Maxwell’s remembrance that she and he had very first met “at 10 o’clock in the morning of January 13, 1976, in Philadelphia,” for a “Hedda Gabler” starring her, directed by him —

 “And I was late,” said Murray now.

 “Ten minutes late,” she said forgivingly.

 “I was horrified,” said Murray, and then: “When Roberta got back from Ireland last year, she called me up and said: ‘I think I have a play for you.’ ”

 This play.

 Yes, Murray has met Thomas Kilroy, “who came here when he knew we were going to go with it.” Yes, Kilroy had answered questions — “about usage of a word, about dialect.” For the rest, said Murray, “it’s a very simple play about some very complicated people.”

 Well, if a play about art and life, art vs. life, mothers, daughters, sex, love, death, Samuel Beckett, Alberto Giacometti, and a sculptured head, in marble, halfway between Michelangelo and Brancusi — if all that can be simple …

 Stupid journalistic question: Is Brian Murray happier as an actor or a director?

 “It’s not a stupid question. I seem to act in a clump, then I direct in a clump. As a director I love the process of rehearsal,” said Murray. “As an actor I love the process of acting with an audience. But I think, over all, I most enjoy directing.

 “The thing I dislike about directing,” he said, “is when you have to say goodbye to the actors. And the thing I like about acting,” he said straight-faced, “is when you get rid of the director.”

 Roberta Maxell piped up. “I won’t be happy when Brian leaves,” she said, “but they can be pains in the ass.”

 Good people, what do you think Samuel Beckett would have thought of this play?

 “Good question,” said Murray, as before. “I think he’d like the humor. I think he’d like the parts about him. And I think he’d like Nell” — the character played by Ms. Maxwell.

 “Yes,” said the actress who plays Nell, “she is engaging, isn’t she.”
 THE SHAPE OF METAL. By Thomas Kilroy. Directed by Brian Murray. With Roberta Maxwelll, Julia Gibson, and Molly Ward. 59E59 Theaters, (212) 279-4200, or

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