Wednesday, May 4, 2016

The Beginning and Middle of Beckett's 'Endgame'

Alan Mandell and Barry McGovern

By Darlene Donloe
Samuel L. Beckett is known for writing lofty prose.

When viewing some of his works, the intellectually-challenged need NOT apply.

Full disclosure:  some of Beckett’s dialogue and imagery in Endgame went completely over this reviewer’s head. Although I don’t need it, in my defense, it didn’t stop me from enjoying a remarkable night of theater.

Endgame, currently playing at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City through May 22, is directed by Alan Mandell, one of Beckett’s interpreters, who also stars in the dramedy.

Mandell, of course, is best known for his star turns in Beckett’s Waiting For Godot and Anton Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard.

He is joined on stage by Barry McGovern, Charlotte Rae, James Greene and Anne Gee Byrd. Rae and Byrd alternate in the role of Nell.

Endgame is a gloomy one-act play, staged in one room, written in a style called, Theatre of the Absurd, which uses the abandonment of conventional dramatic form to portray the futility of human struggle in a senseless world. In other words, it’s deep! It takes place after an apocalyptic catastrophe – the reason for and result of which is never really addressed. Considered one of Beckett’s best works, the play has four characters – all of whom are dealing with the End of something.

Charlotte Rae and James Greene

Mandell plays Hamm, an unlikeable, mean-spirited, wheelchair bound man who is blind and unable to stand, but whose wit and clarity are on point. His hilarious and crotchety servant is Clov, aptly played in this production by Barry McGovern.  The two other characters in the play are Nagg (James Greene) and Nell (Charlotte Rae and Anne Gee Byrd), who play Hamm’s parents.   The parents, who don’t have any legs, live in a garbage can/barrel/dustbin type situation.  The interpretation of why and how this came to be is the million dollar question.

The play opens with Clov preparing for the day’s routines. He opens the curtains and removes sheets that cover Hamm as well as from two garbage can/barrel/dustbins.  Thus begins their day. Hamm and Clov talk of ending it all – particularly Hamm who is imprisoned by the chair. Hamm asks Clov why he doesn’t just leave.  Clov responds, “there is no one else.”  Hamm asks why Clov doesn’t kill him. Clov responds that he doesn’t know the combination to the cupboard. And so it goes for about 80 minutes as the men exchange barbs about life and death.

Both Hamm and Clov are in the Endgame of their lives. Hamm is convinced he’s only moments away from starving to death due to his reliance on Clov, who persistently warns of his impending departure, but, who, throughout the show sometimes has trouble just leaving the room. Even he laments why he’s never been able to walk out the door and leave Hamm to himself. Maybe he doesn’t want to be the channel that nails Hamm’s coffin.

Occasionally, to break up the monotony, Hamm will have Clov take him for a spin around the room. However, up his return to the starting point, he must be placed exactly in the middle of the room. Not to the left, not to the right, not too far back – but right in the middle. It has become a routine – that surely has a deeper meaning than just taking chair spins around the room.  Being placed in the center of the room means something to Hamm. There is a circular pattern taken on his rides. It must be symbolic of something – possibly the circle of life. Or is it simply he has nothing else to do while waiting for death?

Impending death is a constant for all of the characters, none of whom is afraid of the inevitable. For Nell, who finally does close her eyes for the last time – it’s as if death is a reward for her long-suffering. To live a legless life in a garbage can, constantly berated by one’s son, is not to exist at all.

In an attempt to bring a deeper meaning to the garbage can, I surmised that it was used as a metaphor for the fractured relationship between the parents and Hamm.  Hamm threw away (like garbage) any love, compassion and emotion he had for his parents – thus the symbolization of trash. The friction between the parents and Hamm is never fully addressed.  Hamm was so removed from the relationship with his parents that he showed no emotion when his mother finally succumbed – probably from a broken heart.

For 80 minutes all of the characters wax lyrical about a time that was -  and a time that is rapidly approaching.  For Nell the good times always happened “yesterday.”  For all four characters death signified freedom from their daily gloom and doom.

(l-r) Director Alan Mandell and Barry McGovern

At one point Clov thinks he sees something outside and wants to investigate. Hamm tells Clov he doesn’t need him anymore, but wants to share his thoughts with him before he goes. Clov recalls happier times, but is also ready for his next chapter. He leaves to pack his bag. When Hamm calls out to him, Clov doesn’t answer.

The ending, which I won’t reveal, is appropo.

Endgame is an unforgiving play that is hard to watch, but is one filled with enough emotion to fill a theater.

Scenic design is by John Iacovelli, costume design is by Maggie Morgan, lighting design is by Jared A. Sayeg and sound design is by Cricket S. Myers.
On the DONLOE SCALE: D (don’t bother), O (oh, no), N (needs work), L (likeable), O (oh, yeah) and E (excellent), Endgame gets an E (excellent).

Running time: 1 hour, 20 minutes, with no intermission

Endgame, Kirk Douglas Theatre, 9820 Washington Blvd., Culver City; 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sundays; through May 22; $25 to $55 (subject to change);  (213) 628 – 2772 or

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