WELLESLEY — What an actor of Will Lyman’s stature brings to any given role is more than talent; more, even than the craft learned and honed during a lifetime on the stage.
What Lyman also brings is that ineffable, you-know-it-when-you-see-it quality known as presence.
His towering performance in the title role of “King Lear’’ two summers ago on Boston Common still reverberates in the memory. Tellingly, Lyman’s presence proves equally compelling when Shakespeare’s unstoppable geyser of words is replaced by the terseness of Samuel Beckett, that all-time master of saying so much by leaving so much unsaid.
Lyman is currently starring in three short plays gathered under the title “Beckett in Brief,’’ directed by James Seymour and presented by Commonwealth Shakespeare Company at Babson College’s Sorenson Center for the Arts. The evening begins with the inscrutable-even-for-Beckett “Rough for Radio II,’’ featuring Lyman and Ashley Risteen. Next comes “The Old Tune,’’ featuring Lyman and Ken Baltin. Lyman is solo for “Krapp’s Last Tape,’’ the monologue that ends the evening and is the most engrossing and poignant of the three plays.
Lyman’s voice is a remarkable instrument, and so is his face. It is fascinating to watch Lyman’s Krapp, a writer now nearing 70, simultaneously fight and surrender to the tidal pull of nostalgia while listening to tape recordings of himself made on his 39th birthday. Krapp is, essentially, looking back at looking back, because the younger Krapp is also in a retrospective mood, reminiscing about a woman, about the death of his mother, and (derisively) about “the aspirations! And the resolutions!’’ of his younger self. Lyman’s Krapp jabs fiercely at the tape recorder, rewinding and fast-forwarding, depending on what he wants to hear.
As he starts to make a new recording, Krapp is as contemptuous of his 39-year-old self as the 39-year-old Krapp is of his even younger self. Growls the elder Krapp by way of preface: “Just been listening to that stupid bastard I took myself for thirty years ago; hard to believe I was ever as bad as that. Thank God that’s all done with anyway.’’ But then he pauses, as memories of a woman and a life that might have been intrude, and says: “The eyes she had! . . . Could have been happy with her, up there on Fundy, and the pines, and the dunes. Could I? And she?’’ He closes that stream of thought with “Pah!,’’ but a crack has opened.
We see the tortured workings of Lyman’s expressive features — there is eloquence in this actor’s silences — at the same time we hear him speaking on the old tape recordings, with a resonance few can match. He’s not afraid to sound or look goofy, either, as when Krapp says the word “spool’’ in a childishly high-pitched voice, or stands for long moments with a banana jutting from his mouth.
“Rough for Radio II,’’ which was originally a radio play, is the most head-scratching work of “Beckett in Brief.’’ Lyman portrays a crude, barking authority figure called the Animator and Risteen plays the Stenographer. An unseen figure named Fox is being interrogated by the also unseen, whip-cracking Dick. If the meaning of “Rough for Radio II’’ remains somewhat elusive, the atmosphere is compellingly sinister: Seymour stages the play with Lyman and Risteen in silhouette, seated across a long table from each other, behind a screen.
As for “The Old Tune,’’ it’s a treat to watch seasoned pros like Lyman and Baltin pluck its chords. In this translation and adaptation by Beckett of Robert Pinget’s “La Manivelle,’’ two old men bump into each other and settle in on a street corner for a prolonged bout of reminiscence while they watch the world passing them by, in both senses of that phrase. Their names are Gorman (Lyman) and Cream (Baltin), and their joint stroll down Memory Lane proves to be an uncertain one, rife with faulty recollections of what year “the great frost’’ took place and who married whom and the like.
Gorman projects an air of perpetual puzzlement, while Cream tends toward testiness. When a pack of cigarettes falls on the ground, the men stare at it for an amusingly long time, each waiting for the other to make the effort to pick it up. They glower and sigh at each passing car — those damnable emblems of modernity — and Lyman and Baltin give a slightly different shading to the exasperation of the oldsters each time. Inevitably, Gorman and Cream speak of mortality (“The young pop off and the old hang on’’). Whatever the topic, their talk has a distinctly Beckett flavor, and that’s always a good thing.
BECKETT IN BRIEF: Three short plays by Samuel Beckett
Directed by James Seymour. Production by Commonwealth Shakespeare Company. Presented by BabsonArts. At Sorenson Center for the Arts, Babson College, Wellesley, through May 7. Tickets $40, 781-239-5880, www.commshakes.orgDon Aucoin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.