By David A. Rosenberg

Maybe they’re the last people on earth. There are four of them, populating Samuel Beckett’s “Endgame,” his crepuscular ode to death and destruction. Dating from 1957, yet still relevant because the threat of apocalypse still looms, the powerful tragicomedy is being given a middling revival at New Haven’s Long Wharf Theater.

Starring Brian Dennehy as the blind, tyrannical Hamm, the evening is fascinating yet also a butt-springer (even though it lasts only an intermissionless 90 minutes). Self-indulgently directed by Gordon Edelstein, the production never really comes to grips with the finality of a world nearing the inevitable brink.

Written in French, the play’s original title was “Fin de Partie” or “Game Over,” signifying not just the final stages of a chess match but the finality of the game of life and death. Its characters, seemingly the last earthlings to survive whatever holocaust has befallen mankind, are doomed. Despite faint glimmers of hope, their chances are nothing compared with the rat that escapes with his life from the kitchen or the flea that may or may not have triumphed over being sprayed with insecticide.

Hamm is blind, unable to stand up from his throne-like chair. Trapped with him are his beleaguered servant, Clov, who’s unable to sit down, and his parents, Nagg and Nell, consigned to laundry baskets. The setting resembles a bomb shelter, supposedly bare but containing society’s detritus, surrounded, incongruously, by stacks of chairs. What Beckett describes as a “bare interior,” a place of refuge, is designed by Eugene Lee as a dumping ground.

Upstage, two curtained windows are eyes to the world outside, a world foggy and un-peopled, except for the eventual presence of a small boy, a survivor who may be “a potential procreator.” The tropes are familiar from such Beckett works as “Waiting for Godot,” with its own power struggles between lord and master, its own possible salvation, its own bleak views.

Beckett (1906-1989) was the mid-20th-century poet of existential despair. The writing, spare and obfuscatory, is Shakespearean in size and intent (Hamm is a modern King Lear, Clov his Fool). At Long Wharf, the actors are self-conscious, as if playing at the characters, rather than within them. Dennehy has the emotional size of Hamm, but lacks variety. His blusters and bellows miss the character’s grandeur.

More layered is Reg E. Cathey. Alternately pitiful and needy, Cathy’s Clov, whether suffering in his servitude or plotting his escape, finds the character’s humanity. Healthy-looking Joe Grifasi and Lynn Cohen are sprightly as Nagg and Nell. It’s a puzzle why they’re in laundry baskets instead of the called-for trashcans. They’ve been discarded, not about to be carted off to a washing machine.

As somber as is the situation, the play is chockfull of gallows humor, much at the expense of theater itself. “Why this farce, day after day?” asks Nell. “What is there to keep me here?” asks Clov. “The dialogue,” answers Hamm.

When Clov turns towards the audience, he sees “multitudes.” When he looks out the windows, he sees “zero, zero zero.” Facing the void, says Beckett, all we have are love and friendship. Just each other.

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