When Samuel Beckett's play Endgame premiered at London's Royal Court Theater in 1957, the reviews were less than stellar. The show was condemned as "driveling pretension." It didn't help that the play, then titled Fin De Partie, was presented in French, which no doubt added to the perplexity of the predominantly English-speaking audience.
Bathhouse Theater, until October 11
The years, however, have established Beckett's one-act meditation on death, disintegration, and nothingness as a masterpiece. Bathhouse's sterling revival offers more evidence of this. In the program notes for the show, director Steven Levine talks at length about his inability to "get" what the play's about—usually an extremely bad sign. But in this rare instance, the director's refusal to impose his own meaning on the material delivers significant rewards. Endgame is a play that once you're sure you've "got" it, you've most probably diminished it.
In what we assume are the last few hours of the last day of the world (the time, we are told, is "zero"), the last survivors of some unknown holocaust wait for the end. Hamm (Michael Morgan Dunn, with an imperious stage presence and a magisterial Irish accent) is the blind, lame, and sadistic master of Clov. The latter is played by Kelly Boulware as a vaudeville comedian who's far too ill to be playing this final engagement; he's kept going only through a sort of spastic stumble. Hamm's hold over Clov is that he alone knows the combination to the food locker, but it's clearly deeper than that: These two need their master/servant relationship, if only to give some purpose to lives teetering on the brink of nothingness. When Clov's not available to be his captive audience, Hamm tells the story of his glory days to his amputee parents, Nagg (Dick Arnold) and Nell (Jan Burrell), who reside in a pair of matching trash cans and are even more senile and decrepit than he.
Despite the unrelenting bleakness of this scenario, Endgame is occasionally extremely funny. The physical comedy is laconic but inspired, as when in one bit of business master and servant fruitlessly pursue an elusive sunbeam that briefly visits one window after another. And Beckett's language is seamlessly married with tragedy and farce. "Do you believe in the life to come?" asks Clov. "Mine was always that," answers Hamm. How profound. How funny. How Beckett.