Playing the Game to the Bitter End

By Geary Danihy

The detritus of life -- chairs piled atop chairs, torn and dusty books, various small appliances -- are what set designer Eugene Lee has chosen to frame the otherwise empty room where life is coming to an end or, horrors of horrors, never-ending. Such is the setting for Samuel Beckett’s Endgame, currently on the boards at Long Wharf Theatre. If you are in any way bedeviled by depression, this is perhaps not the play to see, for although there’s humor, it is mere punctuation to the despair that comes when life, at its end, gradually becomes meaningless and the stories you tell trail off into silence.

Originally written in French and translated into English by the playwright, Endgame, at least in its English title (the original title was Fin de partie), refers to the final moves in the game of chess when the outcome is all but apparent, as is the eventual outcome for all those alive is also apparent. As directed by Gordon Edelstein, this bleak look at the end of existence is both riveting and enigmatic. As a playgoer, if you demand meaning and message writ large you will be sorely disappointed.

This four-character, one-act play defies easy interpretation. There is a symbiotic relationship at its core, for Hamm (Brian Dennehy) is blind and confined to his wheelchair, while his servant (Slave? Ward?), Clov (Reg E. Cathey) cannot sit down. Hamm demands and Clov complies, but the relationship keeps both men alive. Then there are Hamm’s parents, Nagg (Joe Grifasi) and Nell (Lynn Cohen), both of whom live, if you can call it that, in what look like large laundry baskets, or perhaps dustbins. Then there’s a stuffed, three-legged dog, a flea and a rat. The stuffed dog, created by Clov, has yet to have its genitals added, but the flea and the rat are fully capable of rampant procreation, much to the distaste of both Hamm and Clov, for procreation means continuation, perhaps of hell on earth.

Many critics have taken a shot at interpreting what Beckett wrote. Some have suggested that the two small windows set high in the room are eyes and hence the set is really a cranium and what we are experiencing are the random, frightened, disconnected thoughts of a human slowly descending into oblivion, complete with rambling diatribes that are often little more than fractured bits of biography. Perhaps. And yet there is also an underlying aching need for human contact that runs through the play -- Nagg wishes Nann to scratch an itch, down low, and they attempt, unsuccessfully, to kiss; near the end of the play, Clov, who swore that he could not touch Hamm, leans his head down on Hamm’s shoulder in a tentative embrace.

Whatever you think might be going on up on the stage, and whatever you suppose it might mean, is secondary to the delight to be found in watching and hearing these four fine actors ply their trade. Grifasi and Cohen, as the aged parents, are pitch-perfect, and even though you only see the top halves of their bodies their body language is wonderfully evocative. Cathey does wonders with a step-ladder and captures the frustrated need of a man who is both enslaved and in need, and Dennehy, without moving from his perch, creates a man who is in conflict with himself, eager for death yet clinging to life, his shield, his means of denial of the inevitable, an overt verbosity...and a whistle that, when blown, signifies his need for attention, for contact.

The program notes, written by dramaturg Christine Scarfuto, point out that during World War II Beckett did volunteer work in a hospital in Saint-Lo, a town that was essentially leveled during the Allied invasion of Normandy. She writes that there were “only a few shells of bombed out buildings left standing.” Perhaps that is what Clov is seeing when, at Hamm’s command, he looks out the two small windows in the room – nothing is moving, the sea is dead, a gray pall hangs over everything, the sun has been obliterated. Faced with such devastation, faced with the inevitability of demise, this dark, devilish play suggests that “And yet we go on” -- to our credit or to our despair.

Endgame runs through Feb. 5. For tickets or more information call 203-787-4282 or go to www.longwharf.org.

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