Someday Productions LLC and Pillow Talking are pleased to present the following review of ENDGAME at Long Wharf Theatre
Through February 5th
I’m not afraid of death; I just don’t want to be there when it happens. — Woody Allen
I believe that some of the arts, such as certain literature and theatre, is like fine wine (or maybe more like Jack Daniels) – you need to acquire a taste for it. As a young culture vulture in college, I found myself soaking up the works of Beckett, Camus, Sartre, Nietzsche, Tolstoy, and others. Despite my Jesuit education, I found myself on an intellectual level (and even on a spiritual – or perhaps non-spiritual to be precise) facing the encounter with nothingness. In fact, I really did well academically in my pursuit of Existentialism. To quote Woody Allen again, “I took a test in Existentialism. I left all the answers blank and got 100.”
Waiting for Godot was my favorite Beckett play — probably because I have seen various productions of it (too bad not the one with Nathan Lane, Bill Irwin and John Goodman or the Steve Martin and Robin Williams version directed by Mike Nichols in 1988), rather than just having read it like I did with Endgame.
I am pleased to report that after having seen Endgame at Long Wharf, I can now cross it off my bucket list of the plays I must see before I die. There is a HUGE difference between just reading a play and actually seeing it performed – a rather commonplace observation, but it does say scads about theatre classes that rely totally on students’ interpretations of plays based on the written word rather than actually experiencing live performances. The play IS the thing.
Long Warf’s Endgame is a stunning, powerful vision of what is considered to be one of Samuel Beckett’s best plays, with brilliant acting and masterful directing. Veteran Director (and Artistic Director) of Long Wharfs Theatre’s production is like a grandmaster, marshalling his actors like chess pieces through a carefully laid out labyrinth of the quintessential human condition to a final unforgiving endgame. Indeed, the direction tracks closely Beckett’s original vision and his own direction of the play. It resonates with the trappings of the usual existential motifs found in Beckett’s work: frustration, confinement, repetition, struggle, decay. As in Waiting for Godot, the pregnant pauses were frequent with the anticipation of action (replaced by inaction) a technique used throughout the play. Beckett can say and show more in the silence between the lines of dialogue.
The entire cast of four were amazing. Brian Dennehy was made for the role of Hamm and I believe it is one of his best performances to date. I remember seeing a young Brian Dennehy at the start of his career in Yonkers, New York as the Bus Driver in a production of Bus Stop with headliners John Travolta and Anita Gillette. It was a mind-blowing experience to see him decades later at the pinnacle of his career. Kudos also must go to the rest of this amazingly talented cast. Reg E. Cathey was spot on as Clov, the servant, companion, scapegoat, and ultimate foil to Dennehy’s Hamm. If Dennehy was the hammer (which his character’s name supposedly symbolized) then Reg E. Cathey was the perfect nail (as his name supposedly symbolized). Character actor Joe Grifasi who has more credits than rings on a redwood tree trunk, was wonderful as the sometimes comical but always pathetic Nagg (Hamm’s father). Ditto to veteran actress Lynn Cohen who was amazing as Nell (Hamm’s mother).
Endgame, like Beckett’s other plays, is a provocative, intellectually stimulating and thought-provoking exercise in the study of the human condition. Beckett’s plays are not produced often. One reason is the sheer austerity of his work. (I have to wonder if Mr. Dennehy was not in the play, would there still be a packed audience?) The other reason I discovered is that the estate of Samuel Beckett is extremely strict in its production requirements and limitations.
Like life, Beckett’s Endgame’s ultimate meaning depends on individual subjective interpretations. There is no right or wrong in Endgame, it is journey, the playing of the game if you will, that matters – and that is different for all of us. For example, on a personal note, it’s interesting to see how far I have journeyed from my existential college days. If I had seen Endgame decades ago when I young existentialist, I would have seen the absurdity of life, the complete hopelessness and despair of existence itself. As an older (and wiser?) individual, while I saw the despair, the struggle, the decay – I also saw a glimmer, a faint spark of hope when Hamm says despite all the hardship that we endure, “and yet we go on.”
Long Wharf was gracious enough to provide a packet of information about Beckett and his plays. I found the material quite helpful in trying to understand the background and context of the play. I am not afraid to admit that I also turn to the Spark notes on the play. Of course, when I was in college they were called Monarch and Cliff notes and I did resort to them often. Hmmmm…maybe I haven’t come that far from the person I was in college after all!
Since all life is futility, then the decision to exist must be the most irrational of all.
— Emil Cioran, Romanian philosopher and essayist
In today’s social climate, it would appear there is no escape from insincerity and fakeness; one might believe that we live among only beautiful people who lead idyllic lives – those whose perfectly laid paths are traversed with vitality, passion, and purpose. We entertain the illusion that everyone (possibly, except us) is happy and healthy and well-adjusted. Just peruse social media and you’ve got acre upon acre of the greenest grass as far as the eyes can see.
This matter gives me pause; however, and it makes me wonder what Samuel Beckett might say if he were alive today. In his despair-laden, dark comedy-tinged works, the incomparable playwright, director, novelist, and poet sugar-coats nothing. He didn’t pretty up a single thing; rather he painted a bleak picture where the struggles of the human condition lay bare, raw, even festering. Master of the Theatre of the Absurd and tragicomedy, he presented cold, harsh reality, layered it with frustration, wrapped it up in confusion, dotted it with a heap of terror (existential terror, to be precise), and finally tied it loosely (very) with strings of humor.
This all is exceptionally poignant in his masterful one-act Endgame, which first opened in London in 1957. Life is futile. Life is painful. Life is hard. And above all, it is bereft of meaning. We keep circling back to the same agonizing certainties. But despite it all, as social animals, we yearn for the company of others to fulfill us somehow, someway. Simply speaking, people need people, even when we find ourselves part of dysfunctional, co-dependent, even harmful relationships.
True to Beckett’s stage directions (and the only way his estate allows his works to be produced), the action takes place in a grim, gray single room which resembles a skull; two small windows representing eye sockets – openings to a depressing and empty outside world; its characters the brain and memory within. Hamm is the suffering, angry protagonist (whom we had the honor to see portrayed by the one and only Tony and Golden Globe Award-winning Brian Dennehy) and with his co-dependent servant Clov (a stellar Reg E. Cathey), they exist in this post-apocalyptic, crypt-like basement which more closely resembles a prison cell. The endless, wearying, monotonous days are filled with clipped, repetitious banter that serves only to bring out the worst in each; both are lost, have experienced loss, and have little left to give if they ever did. Hamm, blind and confined to a wheelchair, needs Clov’s eyes and legs; Clov, who for some unknown reason cannot sit, needs the security of Hamm’s shelter and sustenance. Hamm’s legless parents are “stored” in ashbins – Nagg, played by Joe Grifasi, and Nell, played by Lynn Cohen, punctuate the morose with their own sadly comical tête-à-tête.
Beckett’s Endgame is at the same time both complex and direct; comprehensible and indecipherable; profound and pointless. Throughout, you’ll alternate between scratching your head and aha! insights, where you may in fact, “get it.” You’ll want to read essays and analyses as soon as you arrive home to explore whether your suspicions and evaluations are correct – and what you’ll possibly find is that you are both right and wrong. Because there isn’t necessarily one logical, rational answer to Beckett’s tale. But for certain, Beckett illuminated the never-ending circle of life and death, meaning and meaninglessness.
Directed by Long Wharf’s esteemed artistic director Gordon Edelstein (whose credits are as long as my arm), this incredible troupe worked like a well-oiled, well-worn machine; a group who could suspend reality, bringing the audience into their disturbingly real, yet bizarre world. Eugene Lee crafted a simple yet powerful set (he’s also production designer for Saturday Night Live, The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, and Late Night with Seth Meyers). Kudos to Kaye Voce for spot-on costume design and Jennifer Tipton for impeccable lighting design.
Winter, with its painfully gray overwash, seems the perfect time for a play rife with existential angst. Yet any time is the perfect time to see an extraordinary production at Long Wharf.