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McGovern Makes Bleak Beckett Sing at Radar Fest: Jeremy Gerard

Barry McGovern
Barry McGovern in "Watt." Source: Public Theater via Bloomberg Bloomberg

Long-limbed and jowly, with animated eyebrows, the Irish actor Barry McGovern looks like the Samuel Beckett clowns he was born to play.

His latest is the shambling title character in “Watt” his adaptation of an early Beckett novel. First presented at Dublin’s Gate Theatre in October, it’s now taking up 55 mesmerizing minutes at the Public Theater’s invaluable Under the Radar festival. (Oddly, this was a show the festival’s eccentric managers insisted reviewers not review.)

Watt is a precursor of the rootless, untethered hobos who populate so many of Beckett’s plays and so is a natural for transition to the stage. McGovern, best known here for another Beckett solo show, “I’ll Go On,” appears on the darkened Newman Theater stage in formal tails and brown saddle shoes, with little more than a couple of chairs as props.

Watt is a wanderer who unexpectedly finds himself in the service of the provincial Mr. Knott (the continuing Watt-Knott references amount to an existentialist riff on Abbott and Costello’s “Who’s On First?” routine). The now-butler reveals in droll, often intimate detail the minutiae of daily life, work, his poignant relationship with a one-breasted maid and, ultimately, his almost shocking departure for parts unknown.

Aided by James McConnell’s subtle shifts of golden lighting and the unobtrusive but clearly firm director’s hand of Tom Creed, McGovern brings us into Watt’s circumscribed world with an economy of riveting gestures -- an arm flung thus, a leg jetting so. But it is his voice, never pushing, always just shy of archness, that most captivates. It’s an astonishing piece, even with its bleak-as-night ending.

Performances continue through Jan. 16 at 425 Lafayette St. Information: +1-212-967-7555; Rating: ****

What the Stars Mean:
****        Do Not Miss
***         Excellent
**          Average
*           Below Par
(No stars)  Avoid

(Jeremy Gerard is a theater critic and editor for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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