Some plays inspire people to talk afterwards about the subject matter. Endgame, with its sometimes funny, but mostly dismal take on end of life, had people at its opening Sunday at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in the Los Angeles area shaking their heads at the absurdness of Samuel Beckett’s “classic” play. Perhaps it was the telling moment and muffled laughter when the main character, Hamm (played by Alan Mandell, who also directed), said, “Do you not think this thing has gone on long enough?” The line may have been about the characters’ sad existence, but the audience may have thought it was about the play.
Like his other classic play, Waiting for Godot, Beckett never really makes a point with his meaningless gloom and wry humor in Endgame. As The New York Times review when the play opened on Broadway 58 years ago noted: “Don’t expect this column to give a coherent account of what–if anything– happens. Almost nothing happens in the sense of action.”
Endgame seems to about an existence where all there is to look forward to is death. The four characters never know how they will make it through the day, or if it will be their last day. As the servant Clov (Barry McGovern) says, “Finished, it’s finished, nearly finished, it must be nearly finished,” with a tone making it clear that he wants it to be.
Hamm also delivers several lines that convey the characters’ lack of control over their lives as they try to derive some meaning before their game is over. “Can there be misery loftier than mine?” or his hope that “it won’t all have been for nothing!”
Their suffering and frustration with their lots in life are clear. Hamm is blind and sits day after day in his wheelchair center stage like it is his throne. Clov, who limps and cannot sit, cares for him but is annoyed with Hamm and their daily rituals. Joining them are Hamm’s elderly parents, Nagg and Nell (played by the age appropriate 89-year-old James Greene and 90-year-old Charlotte Rae or the youngster 78-year-old Anne Gee Byrd, who share the role), who are legless, live in garbage cans and pop their heads up periodically to comment on their absurdity of their existence and banter with Hamm. (Maybe their sarcastic and wry observations from the trash bin inspired Oscar the Grouch’s character!)
Beckett was extremely particular in crafting his plays with stage notes and sets stipulated, down to the two windows, trash cans, etc. Since the Irish playwright’s death in 1989, his executors are still emphatic and litigious about preserving the “integrity of his work. So, Mandell is the perfect choice for director.
The 88-year-old Mandell was in the original touring productions of Endgame and Godot that were directed by Beckett himself. He has played in both plays all around the world for decades. In fact, he and McGovern were both in a production of Godot in 2012 at Los Angeles’ Mark Taper Forum, which is operated by the Center Theatre Group as is the Kirk Douglas.
The actors are all great in their roles, but Beckett’s Endgame, with its dismal, yet funny take on life and its end, is not for everyone. As one character said, “Nothing is funnier than unhappiness,” but nothing is sadder too. The play sends the audience out shaking their heads at the absurdity and thinking about their own day-to-day existence before their endgame, which might have been Beckett’s intent. Endgame will be at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City, Calif., through May 22.
Written and Edited by Dyanne Weiss
Performance May 1, 2016
Center Theatre Group: Endgame
New York Times: Beckett’s ‘Endgame”
Samuel French: Endgame
Photos of Alan Mandell and Barry McGovern (top) and Charlotte Rae and James Greene (bottom) by Craig Schwartz, courtesy of Center Theatre Group