There are many quotable lines in Samuel Beckett’s Endgame, now playing at Center Theatre Group’s Kirk Douglas Theatre, but none so apt as, “Nothing is funnier than unhappiness.”
For many people, I think, Beckett can be a slog. I saw an excellent production of Happy Days at Stanford Rep a few years back where the director, fearful I suspect of losing the audience, eliminated the intermission. Some few sneaked out anyway. But for the intrepid theatregoer, the rewards of Beckett can be sublime. If one must be called on to categorize, then Endgame is grim, bleak, absurdist comedy, a play that evokes in an audience, chuckles, guffaws and, occasionally, belly laughs. It is a lampoon of the existential angst of life that is the common lot.
At lights up, a castle-like semicircular room is seen with a stooped man, Clov (Barry McGovern) standing by a door. A figure covered by a sheet sits center in a throne-like wheel chair and further over a sheet covers two other objects. After carrying out the business of Beckett’s explicit stage directions, Clov, with a plodding gait, crosses and whips off the sheets to reveal a pair of barrels or dustbins and an old man, Hamm (Alan Mandell), with black glasses covering his eyes. Through the approximately eighty minutes of the play’s action, the imperious Hamm commands and Clov resentfully obeys.
The barrels are the domiciles of Hamm’s parents, Nagg (James Greene) and Nell (Charlotte Rae, who alternates with Anne Gee Byrd). Occasionally Clov leans into the barrels to converse with the old couple and they, hilariously, pop up from time to time like Oscar the Grouch, to have verbal intercourse with the lofty Hamm. Time passes for the characters as they lurch toward the end.
Questions come up to which there are no answers. Who is Hamm, really? Some kind of lord? Why does Clov obey and come clopping over every time Hamm blows his whistle? Why are Hamm’s parents content to live in barrels and how often does their sawdust (or sand) get changed? Does the knowledge of the inevitable end burden them? Will Hamm also wind up in a dustbin?
As can be seen in Waiting for Godot or Happy Days, where a woman is stuck up to her waist in a small hillock, the whys and hows are not Beckett’s concern. It is for the audience to puzzle it out and ultimately, existentially, it is what it is. A patient audience will reap the rewards of Beckett’s exquisite, plain, deceptively simple language.
This production of Endgame is a pinnacle achievement. The cast is utterly extraordinary. Between the four of them, they have nearly 250 years of performance experience at the highest level. Mr. Mandell (who also directs) toured with the original productions of Waiting for Godot and Endgame directed by Samuel Becket himself. James Greene made his Broadway debut in 1951. Charlotte Rae also made her Broadway debut in 1951 and played Mrs. Peachum in the famed production of The Threepenny Opera with Lotte Lenya. And Mr. McGovern appeared opposite Mr. Mandel in CTG’s 2012 production of Waiting for Godot. I don’t hope to see better.
Endgame, superbly mounted with scenic design by John Iacovelli, lighting by Jared A. Sayeg, costumes by Maggie Morgan and sound design by Cricket S. Myers, runs through May 22 at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City.