Samuel Beckett's Endgame makes a game out of the end of mankind. This play without plot is not without heart and although its characters can be opaque and baffling, the current production at the Brooklyn Academy of Music's Harvey Theater, stands up as a theatrical work of art, still original and unique as it was when it first premiered in 1957.
Like the playwright's other works of this period - Waiting for Godot and Happy Days it is often repetitious, exasperating and sometimes even silly, yet it is always alive though its four characters are close to death in what seems to be a post nuclear apocalyptic world, which has rendered the earth totally still and perhaps forever silent.
Beckett's plays have been described as tragic comedies about the human situation to me they have always been mysteries without a solution. Endgame does have some humor from time to time - puns, and a funny story here and there, but there is nothing frivolous about the play which comes across not so much as entertainment but a solemn story of desperation and despair: four people in the darkening twilight of their lives.
Endgame takes place in a barren house near the sea - a gray-lit interior with two small windows and a door. There seems to be only these people left in the world - an old man Hamm, a retired actor, maybe once a former Hamlet, now aged into a Lear-like character, who owns the house. He is bitter and frightened of being alone yet wishes for death and is close to it. With a dramatic voice he asks: Can there be more misery loftier than mine? He is blind and unable to move because of injuries, and forced to rely on his servant, the tough and snarling Clov, who is partially crippled too. The only other characters are Hamm's ancient father and mother, Nagg (Alvin Epstein) and Nell (Elaine Stritch), also handicapped they reside in a pair of garbage cans. When they rise to speak they talk of days gone by and of their honeymoon and the love they shared. Nagg tells a funny, slightly risqué story about a tailor. No real action ever takes place in Endgame just the ongoing quarrel between Hamm and Clov, both fighting for their lives, eager for death, desperately trying to understand their fates but convinced there is no understanding to be had. You're on earth there is no cure for that!" shouts Hamm, summing up what seems to be the sense of the play which rejects hope and faith yet tries to be brave and compassionate while evoking a tremendous sense of frustration, and pity for mankind.
John Turturro is grand as Hamm confined to an elaborate wheelchair waiting for death. As the difficult Clov, Max Casella , a protean actor, who has done television (The Sopranos), movies, and stage: his performance here is nothing less than a revelation. As Hamm's mother Elaine Stritch as Nell makes a large impression in a small role and shows she's a first-rate dramatic actress. Alvin Epstein as Nagg, Hamm's old man, is gallant, touching, and often humorous. Of all the actors in the cast Mr. Epstein is the most experienced with Beckett having played Lucky in the original 1956 Broadway premiere of Waiting for Godot, and over the years has not only directed but has played every role, except Nell, in Endgame. The production has been staged by the Romanian director Andrei Belgrader to get all of the urgent sense of meaning and compassion out of this Beckett masterwork.