ENDGAME is Samuel Beckett at his best, conjuring his bleak, entropic universe out of the simple words and incessant pauses of characters struggling to stay alive while "something is taking its course." The problem with performing Beckett is to evoke this sense of futile (but constant) struggle while not losing the attention of an audience which has come, not to be plunged into a sense of futility, but to be entertained. The Mather House production of Endgame succeeds admirably in solving this problem.
Hamm is the main character of the play. Blind, unable to stand, he is wheeled about and catered to by Clov, who irrationally obeys him though constantly threatening to leave. Hamm keeps his parents, Nagg and Nell, in barrels from which their heads occasionally appear to reminisce, tell a joke, listen to Hamm. The characters inhabit a world going dead. They have run out of bicycle wheels, sugar plums, and worst of all, pain killers. They pass the time running through stale old stories and pointless dialogues as their only protection against the death outside.
Director Guy Rochman has staged this non-action in a bare, theater-in-the-round setting which almost makes the audience a part of the play. This not only keeps the audience's attention on dialogue that may be spoken right next to them, it also goes a long way towards eliminating the problem of the poor acoustics of the Mather House dining hall.
The acting in general is excellent, Jan Madsen gives a wonderful comic performance as Hamm. Though unable to use his eyes or his body, he rivets the audience's attention with his voice and a remarkable repertoire of arm gestures. His highpoint is an attempt to narrate a story he has composed, throwing out one version after another, ripping pages from a notebook he isn't supposed to be able to read, commenting on the narrative ("A bit feeble, that"), and eventually running out of inspiration. His only problem is a voice that at times seems to verge on a Kirk Douglas imitation.
Becky Tippens as Nell, and especially Paul Kleinman as Nagg do fine caricatures of senile old people. The only weak member of the cast is Montague Gammon as Clov. In general his Clov expresses only a whining weariness with everything about his life. However (and here again is the difficulty with acting Beckett) whining weariness can grate on an audience unless it manages to be expressive of meaning beyond sheer weariness. Gammon is not quite able to convey this, and as a result his characterization occasionally becomes tiresome.
This production of Endgame is worth seeing, however, but only if one is willing to spend two hours in a world where love and happiness and forgiveness are not in the vocabulary, where a prayer to God is given up because "the bastard doesn't exist," where only jaded, effete people live playing out meaningless parts, where-Oh well. You know what I'm talking about.