Washington Stage Guild has mounted a production of Samuel Beckett’s “Endgame” that is more than satisfactory in its parts. The acting, direction, and set and sound design are all top-notch.
I am a big fan of Beckett. I’ve reviewed Beckett plays for this publication, have performed in a Beckett show, and have read his complete works. “Endgame” is considered by some to be one of his masterworks, perhaps his very greatest play. It is certainly ambitious in its tone and structure. But unlike “Krapp’s Last Tape” (one man remembering) or “Waiting for Godot” (two men waiting) or some of Beckett’s one-act radio plays, the attempted complexity of “Endgame” makes it much less accessible to the viewer.
The acting, direction, and set and sound design are all top-notch.
Director Alan Wade refers to this in his note to the audience, conceding that he has found other Beckett works he has directed to be easier to interpret. Wade quotes a Beckett character from another writer’s play stating that “a play is not about something; a play is something.” That may be so, but there is an event horizon of obscurity beyond which a narrative becomes ungraspable.
The one-act play takes place in a single barren room and centers, quite literally, around Hamm, a blind man confined to a jerry-rigged wheelchair that he insists be placed at the room’s exact center. He bullies and cajoles his servant Clov, a peripatetic figure who never sits. Hamm’s ancient parents, Nagg and Nell, both legless, live in garbage barrels pushed up against one of the walls. They pop up from time to time to beg Hamm for a bit of food or to wistfully recall their days of youth and love.
The room, designed by Joseph B. Musumeci, Jr., as a stark basement or bomb shelter, effectively sets the post-apocalyptic mood. In their dialogues that make up the bulk of “Endgame,” Hamm and Clov allude to the somewhat recent collapse of civilization and the dangers that await anyone who leaves the space. Clov issues occasional idle threats to leave, but he needs to serve Hamm as much as Hamm needs to be served.
While Beckett captured his recurring themes of existential solitude and the futility of existence more effectively in other writings, that should not be held against this particular production. Bill Largess commands the stage as Hamm, dominating affairs even though he is unable to move about of his own will. Matty Griffiths more than holds his own as Clov, with a hunched back and a distinctive gait that creates a troubling rhythmic clomping as he travels around the room doing Hamm’s will. David Bryan Jackson as Nagg embodies the terror that comes with helplessness, while Rosemary Regan as Nell makes the most of her character’s brief appearance with a tender reminiscence of her younger days.
This is, then, a very strong production of a play that will not be to everyone’s taste. Those who appreciate “Endgame” will not want to miss it. It is also worthwhile for Beckett completists or as a study in the absurdist theatre of the mid-20th century. It is, however, not an easy ride.
Running time: Ninety minutes with no intermission.
“Endgame” runs through February 19, 2023, at Washington Stage Guild, performing at the Undercroft Theatre, Mount Vernon Place United Methodist Church, 900 Massachusetts Avenue, NW, Washington, DC 20001. For tickets and more information, click here. Masks are required while in the performance space.