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Wait is over Beckett's play returns to city 25 years later

Let's just say, for purposes of argument, you've been a critic for 37 years. It's still the question no one ever asks.

"What's your favorite movie?" Sure, sure. "Your favorite concert experience?" Yes, yes, that too. Can't forget "the coolest (or most beautiful or smartest or dumbest) person you ever interviewed?" To be asked -- and to have been active long enough to be asked -- is a privilege. Only a fool wouldn't know that.

But the question no one ever asks is "what's the most beautiful event you ever covered?"

It's too bad, because in my case the answer would be simple: the 1981 world premiere of Samuel Beckett's short play "Rockaby" at what was then called the Center Theater (and later, briefly, the Studio Arena Theatre). No movie I've ever seen was more beautiful. Nor was any music I've ever heard in live performance.

The play was only 14 minutes and 50 seconds long. It began with a spotlight coming up from total darkness and falling on the head and shoulders of Billie Whitelaw. When it ended, it did so in blackness after no wasted moment or intrusively "dramatic" gesture. What happened between was quietly harrowing, a work, to me, of gaunt and haunting verbal music -- a short death sonata of massive impact narrated over the image of an old woman pathetically rocking herself, not to death but into death.

We hear a tape of the voice of the woman's younger self. The only other sound was the squeak of her rocking chair on the floor and her voice croaking "more" when the tape stopped. Nor, at the end of that performance of "Rockaby," have I felt more profound and genuine awe in a crowd (not the awe one hears about these days in everyday jargon). It is, quite possibly, the most beautiful of all Beckett's dramatic endgames. And its provenance leads directly here.

The incredible irony is that the performance was filmed on another night by the great dramatic documentarian D.A. Pennebaker for a 57-minute portrait of the play's great director, Alan Schneider. If ever there was a live moment thoroughly unreproducible on film, that was it. Both Schneider and Whitelaw were hand-picked by Beckett in the way a great composer might hand-pick an orchestra conductor and a soloist for a favorite piece.

To put it mildly, it has not been a common occurrence to have the tiny 14 minutes and 50 seconds repeated on any Buffalo stage. Its Silver Anniversary performance, though, starring Josephine Hogan, will happen at 9 p.m. next Friday in the auditorium of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery to end an evening-long celebration of Beckett's work called "Modernism to Minimalism." It will begin at 6 p.m. with John Reilly's film documentary film "Waiting for Beckett."

It's a lot to ask of Hogan that she be able to reproduce a moment of dramatic miracle. It's enough to have this tiny masterpiece again in the city that, by accident, gave it birth.

The city where, for 15 minutes, all we heard was the lullaby of a voice on tape, an older voice quietly pleading for "more" and the squeaking sound of a rocking chair, rocking, rocking, rocking.

And then rocking no more.

Just silence.

PREVIEW

WHAT: "Rockaby"

WHEN: 9 p.m. next Friday as part of Gusto at the Gallery

WHERE: Albright-Knox Art Gallery, 1285 Elmwood Ave.

TICKETS: Free

INFO: 882-8700 or www.albrightknox.org

e-mail: jsimon@buffnews.com

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