Category: Archive

On the Aisle: Beckett, served neat

February 17, 2011

By Staff Reporter

“Endgame” is probably not the most easily digested of Samuel Beckett’s major works for the stage, lacking perhaps the knockabout comic routines salted through “Waiting for Godot.”
It has, however, often been identified as Beckett’s own favorite among his plays, which probably means that it was the instance in which he came closest to meeting the goal he set himself when he began the task of writing it.
Beckett’s plays seem to call forth the “innovator” in “directors” eager to implant their own “distinctive” stamp on their work, regardless of the stated or implied wishes of the writer.
One particularly unfortunate off-Broadway staging of “Endgame” several seasons ago began its wayward journey by casting a female actor in the role of the blind, immobile Hamm, a decision which would almost certainly have enraged the Foxrock-born author.
The director then compounded the felony by placing Hamm in a kind of chair lift suspended from the auditorium’s ceiling, with his “servant,” Clov, pushing the cage-like container from position to position with the help of an overhead network of tracks and pulleys.
Beckett’s intentions, of course, were totally compromised, to the point that they were nowhere to be found in the director’s creative “vision” for “Endgame.”
Not so with the Irish Rep’s artistic director, Charlotte Moore, who has staged the play with breathtaking fidelity to Beckett’s instructions.
Hugh Landwehr’s bleakly beautiful set design is everything it should be, a monochromatic universe of distressed wood flooring and equally abused walls, with the two windows called for by the playwright placed precisely as instructed.
One minor variant in the Rep production has Nagg and Nell, Hamm’s aged, decrepit parents, encased in what appear to be oil drums, rather than the ashcans called for by the text.
It’s a small alteration, probably called for by the physical limitations of the Rep’s stageworks, but it suggests, however fleetingly, that Hamm, Clov, Nagg and Nell make their home in a garage or perhaps a truck depot.
The play’s title, of course, derives from the game of chess, and suggests, not without a certain facility, that Beckett’s subject here is nothing less monumental than the end of the world.
An ancillary concerns the interdependence built into the human condition on its most rudimentary level, even under the harshest of circumstances, and even, Becket suggests, as civilization gasps and sputters out forever.
Hamm, obviously, cannot function without Clov, and Clov, although he is at least nominally mobile, never leaves Hamm’s side, bound as he is by their mutual humanity and, the author suggests, the experiences, positive and negative that they have shared.
Clov, overtly and covertly, expresses a desire to depart, and even the suggestion fills Hamm’s heart with terror, try though he will to conceal his feelings. When the half-crippled Clov puts on his boots, Hamm knows from his tread that abandonment is at least a feared possibility.
If “Endgame” is light on the vaudeville, sometimes rowdy and sometimes subtle, that the playwright built into “Waiting for Godot,” it nonetheless has a handful of the theatrical references and allusions of which Beckett was fond.
At one point, addressing the audience he cannot see, Hamm confides, saying, “this is what we call an aside.” At another moment, later in the play’s intermissionless 95 minutes, he announces that he is about to embark on his “final soliloquy.”
Director Moore appears to have stressed clarity over almost everything else in her “Endgame,” with every fragment of Beckett’s crabbed lyricism ringing and resounding in the sometimes chilly air of the Irish Rep’s auditorium.
The Rep’s bifurcated audience area, as it happens, has almost never accommodated a text as well as it does with the current production.
Moore, improving exponentially as a director, had demonstrated rare skill in the casting of “Endgame,” particularly with regard to the selection of Tony Roberts, whose Hamm qualifies as one of the genuine triumphs of his long and distinguished career.
Despite his strong work in Broadway musicals and comedies, not to mention the films of Woody Allen, Roberts’s name probably wouldn’t appear on the wish lists of many directors searching for the ideal Hamm.
As Beckett’s doomed, despairing, but nonetheless imperious hero, Roberts seems almost totally altered, even to the point that his familiar and flexible voice, and his much admired sense of timing, comic and otherwise, are almost entirely transformed and reinvented on this occasion. What Roberts is delivering here is an unexpected and freshly minted performance blessed with true originality.
Adam Heller, like Roberts a familiar presence in musical theater, including Blake Edwards’s “Victor/Victoria,” in which they appeared together, brings a dancer’s energy and an athlete’s grace to the role of Clov, who almost never stops rocketing around Landwehr’s outstanding set.
It comes as no surprise that Alvin Epstein approaches being a definitive Nagg, since he knows his way around Beckett, having been, among other things, the Clov in the play’s first American production, in 1956.
Kathyn Grody, long recognized as a skilled comic actress, and in recent years, a writer as well, bring an admirable poignancy and an ironic wit to the brief role of Nell, Hamm’s nearly extinguished old mother.
Mention should also be made of Linda fisher’s inventive and suitable costumes, and Clifton Taylor’s subtle lighting scheme, the last named making a particularly powerful contribution to the overall impact of the entire endeavor.
With the possible exception of the Gate Theatre Dublin’s production, which visited Lincoln Center a few summers ago, the Irish Repertory Theatre’s “Endgame” may be the finest staging the play has ever received on any New York stage.

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