‘First Love’ Review: Stop and Smell the Corpses

Plenty of people enjoy a stroll through a cemetery, even a picnic among the tombstones. A bit of communing with the dead or meditating on mortality: nothing amiss about that.

The narrator of Samuel Beckett’s short story “First Love,” though, has other ideas about the pleasures of the graveyard — like lucking upon “a genuine interment, with real live mourners,” or having loads of spots to choose from when he feels the urge to relieve himself.

This hard-core eccentric, embodied by Bill Camp, is at his most comically unsettling when he speaks of “the smell of corpses,” and takes a long, savoring sniff.

“Humans are truly strange,” he observes a while later in the monologue, by which point we can hardly disagree.

In JoAnne Akalaitis’s creepy, funny, dun-colored streaming production for Theater for a New Audience, this grizzled disaster of a man is the kind of weird that makes you lean in to watch.

“If theaters opened up tomorrow,” Akalaitis says in a program note, “I wouldn’t do this: This piece is made for Zoom.”

So Eamonn Farrell’s unadorned video design frames a small upstairs space in Camp’s house. Jennifer Tipton’s stark, shadowy lighting sands down the edges of time, while Kaye Voyce’s costume design — principally a headlamp and sweater vest — suggests an untended aloneness. (Akalaitis has collaborated on Beckett with Camp, Tipton and Voyce before.)

Beckett wrote “First Love” in 1946, the year he turned 40, though he didn’t allow its publication until the 1970s. Its nameless narrator is recollecting his mid-20s, when, shortly after his father’s death, he was summarily chucked out of the family home — a rude jolt, as he’d expected “to be left the room I had occupied in his lifetime and for food to be brought me there, as hitherto.”

That reeking entitlement is perhaps his main attribute when he enters what he calls his marriage: a relationship involving initial obsession yet no love on his part.

But let’s guess, shall we, that he was devastatingly good-looking then, or especially gifted at sex. Otherwise it is difficult to comprehend why the woman he variously calls Lulu or Anna ever took this tenaciously lazy creature home and waited on him there.

He doesn’t have the existential weariness that we associate with Beckett characters; rather, Camp gives him a pouncing intensity. Still, his greatest exertion by far is the impulsive emptying, for his own use, of one of Lulu/Anna’s rooms — a manic scene that Camp enacts with a pile of dollhouse-size furniture.

What our narrator keenly, even cruelly, wants is to be left with his thoughts. If he gets mired in them, and he will, that’s OK with him. Just as long as the world does not intrude.

First Love
Through March 1; tfana.org.

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