Sybil Theatre Company

at Heartland Studio

Clov: Do you believe in the life to come?

Hamm: Mine was always that–Endgame

Last year Samuel Beckett met the end he’d written about for 50 years. I wonder how he took it. Did his plays pass before his eyes like so many rehearsals for oblivion? Like a long life drying to a husk, Beckett’s work had dwindled before him, losing–if writing can–hearing, sight, and finally speech. Progressively shorter and stiller, his plays became in effect a pain-wracked letting go, until what remained was the nothingness he’d always tried to embrace.

Few men ever died so fully in imagination before doing it in fact. Beckett is one playwright who always knew that in life less is only less–until it becomes nothing.

What could be more less than the situation in Beckett’s favorite play, his 1957 absurdist classic, Endgame? (The title refers to the final death- trap move in chess.) Trapped in a raked wooden cul-de-sac, hemmed in by bemired walls, afraid of being abandoned, a blind, chair-bound autocrat named Hamm ferociously whistles for his resentful servant, Clov: “If I could kill him I’d die happy.”

For his waiting game, Clov receives a biscuit a day. He wheels Hamm aimlessly around (though the blind man insists on exact placement) and fetches for him the crudely stuffed dog Clov has fashioned. Clov also lugs around and misplaces a stepladder, from which he peers through a broken telescope to report what little he sees. He refuses to give Hamm his painkiller and plots escape. He growls out news about objects that have disappeared and people who have died, the remains of the world perishing around them in painful installments. As Hamm says, “Nature has forgotten us.” It’s a dog’s life–and a man’s.

Beckett slyly lets the terms of their exchanges suggest that emptying world. Hamm: “What’s happening?” Clov: “Something is taking its course.” The way that they sigh out the simple word “yesterday” makes it take on an aching poignance.

Stuck with Hamm are his senile parents, Nagg and Nell, confined to a dumpster where they mutter fragments from the depths of decrepitude. (As one of them says, “Nothing is funnier than unhappiness.”) Caught in his shell of habit, Nagg screams for his “pap,” laments that the sand needs changing, and in his one show of life, despises his son for forcing him to hear the flowery stories that Hamm can never complete. (Hamm has to be heard to know he’s still alive.) What’s left of Nell is beyond even the memory of sex, but her half-mind clings to one happy souvenir, the night she and Nagg rowed out on Lake Como. That’s all that sustains her in her dustbin.

The play’s crux–which is also, Beckett suggests, our postnuclear plight–lies in the twisted liaison between Hamm and Clov. (Even the culinary names suggest their entanglement.) Each presumes the other: Hamm can’t stand and Clov can’t sit. Like Pozzo and Lucky in Waiting for Godot (or like Prospero and Caliban), they represent the hard master–here a paralyzed King Lear melodramatically howling to end his torment (“Play and lose and have done with losing”)–and the stifled servant who hopes only to “learn to suffer better” or to break away from “the same inanities.”

Hamm wants to preserve the ruins of his former exploitive life, but he’s paralyzed by indecision: “It’s time it’s ended and [pause] yet I hesitate to end.” (Once he was decisive: he denied the fuel for light to a woman who “died in darkness” as Hamm shall.) And yet he wants action, as if he were planning a prison break: “Have an idea!” None comes.

Nothing changes in this world except the lighting, whose every alteration blind Hamm insists on knowing about. In the end, Clov packs his paltry belongings and deserts Hamm. By now Hamm has let go; he covers his head with the same torn and blood- spattered shroud that hid him at the start. He will die, or else it will all begin again–a fate far worse than extinction.

Endgame is rarely revived, reason enough to encourage the new Sybil Theatre Company: their goal is to restore neglected works of the avant- garde. Craig Bradshaw’s staging, their debut offering, certainly justifies bringing back Beckett; Bradshaw is adept at fostering the illusion of movement in the midst of checkmate, and he knows how to energize futility and invigorate paralysis.

When the Goodman Studio Theatre produced Endgame in 1981, Rich Cluchey gave us a Hamm who seethed with unprocessed rage. In this production, Noel Flaherty is a worthy successor; this Irish-born actor superbly fuses Hamm’s histrionic bluster (the ham actor in overdrive) and the nagging fear that fuels it. With a rich, stentorian declamation and a face that’s expressive even behind sunglasses, Flaherty’s Hamm may tend more to the mock-tragic than the ludicrous–Beckett’s vaudevillian exchanges generate few laughs here–but how well he rages!

The actor playing Clov must continually reinvent the law of diminishing returns; Clov effaces himself until his exit is nearly irrelevant. Steve Abrahamson is less electric than Flaherty but still up to the task. His depiction of the cowering, bone-tired Clov looks and sounds remarkably like Mandy Patinkin dabbling in the absurd. Abrahamson sometimes forces Clov’s frustration, and his comic deliveries don’t always arrive on schedule; but he’s got the killer deadpan right. Now he needs to sap himself to the point of no return, to be less vigorously inert, so we’ll sense the price of being Hamm’s slave.

James Venturini and Amy Frazier –Nagg and Nell–have little stage time to convey their drab dead-end characters–during most of the play’s 90 minutes, these valiant actors are scrunched up in a too-cozy box. But when they do pop up and squeak, Venturini and Frazier dryly register the despair of pointless survivors. Their game ended long before we meet them; death can only deliver them. Was it the same for Beckett? As always, he’ll never tell.