at the Brooklyn Academy
"Nothing is funnier than unhappiness," states Nell, the aged mother in Samuel Beckett's bleak yet hilarious Endgame, a four-character study in how to meet the end of the world with a simultaneous guffaw and wail of despair. Set in a nondescript shelter in a post-apocalyptic world, the play details the pathetic attempts of the blind and wheelchair-bound Hamm to maintain control over a tiny kingdom: his servant, Clov, who can't sit down, and his decrepit parents, Nagg and Nell, confined to a pair of ash cans. Hamm drives the others to distraction as he seeks amusement and order in a dying world—whether from nuclear radiation or natural disaster (global warming, perhaps) is never revealed and irrelevant. The trap many directors and performers fall into when staging this or most of Beckett's works is to concentrate on the existential despair his characters experience. But there is also dark comedy as his bedraggled tramps slip on the banana peels an uncaring universe has placed in their paths.
Director Andrei Belgrader and his expert company remember that these figures are tragic clowns, almost Chaplinesque, and give the new production at BAM the air of a nightmarish circus, equally sidesplitting, scary, and tear-inducing. John Turturro and Max Casella are like a postmodern Laurel and Hardy, each setting the other off as they struggle to maintain what little dignity they have left. Turturro gives Hamm an oversized pomposity as he bellows commands at Clov, theatrically relates an invented story, and bribes Nagg with biscuits to get him to listen to it. He also displays Hamm's desolation while revealing that all these grandiose actions are merely tactics to delay his inevitable end. Casella's Clov is like a clenched fist, ready to strike furiously at Hamm but always holding back because his master is all he has. Casella's physical life is fascinating. With his uneven gait, hunched shoulders, and stiff arms, he's a broken toy waiting for his springs to wind down.
Alvin Epstein and Elaine Stritch are heartbreaking and farcical as the confined remains of Hamm's parents. Epstein's brilliance should come as no surprise. He originated the role of Clov in the first New York production in 1958, as well as the blithering servant Lucky in the 1956 Broadway premiere of another Beckett masterpiece, Waiting for Godot. There is an entire lifetime of aches, pains, and complaints written on this eloquent actor's face when it pops out from under the trash lid. The unexpected pleasure is provided by Stritch, who eschews her tough-broad persona in favor of a shattered reminder of a gentle woman. Every expression and gesture tells us something about Nell's pre–ash can existence. The radiant smile she exhibits on the single line "Ah, yesterday" is enough to make your eyes well up.
Anita Stewart's simple set and Michael Chybowski's stark lighting create an appropriately blasted-heath playing board for this sad and funny Endgame.
> Presented by the Brooklyn Academy of Music
> at the BAM Harvey Theater, 651 Fulton St., Brooklyn, NYC.
> April 30–May 18. Tue.–Sat., 7:30 p.m.; Sat., 2 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.
> (718) 636-4100 or www.bam.org.
> Casting by Nancy Piccione.
Reviewed by David Sheward