Endgame Credit: Michael Brosilow

Endgame Steppenwolf Theatre Company

Hamm is blind and can’t stand up. Clov, his pissed-off servant, can’t sit down. Two legless old folks—Hamm’s mom and dad, Nell and Nagg—are confined to what appear to be oil drums, carpeted with sand like a couple of litter boxes to catch their waste. They all spend their days in a kind of bunker with two small windows cut into the top of one of its high walls. Periodically, Clov pulls out a stepladder and clambers up to look through those windows—the one when he’s been told to check the ocean, the other when he’s been told to check the land. And what does he see? Mostly gray, dead nothing. “Nature has forgotten us,” Hamm says. “There’s no more nature,” Clov replies.

Samuel Beckett’s Endgame premiered in 1957, and so critics and scholars have tended to see it in a cold-war context, as a parable of atomic annihilation. But now that the apocalyptic odds have shifted from nuclear winter to global warming, it’s equally easy to take the play as a vision of an industrially produced Armageddon. That interpretation even makes a certain amount of sense historically, since Rachel Carson’s pioneering environmental exposé, Silent Spring, was published just five years later, in 1962. Maybe there was something in the air, as it were—something the great artist sensed before the great journalist was able to document it. In any event, I was creepily conscious of how long and by how many routes we’ve been going to hell in a handbasket as I watched Frank Galati’s witty, occasionally powerful, but never quite successful Steppenwolf production.

To pigeonhole the play as any particular kind of parable, though, is to sell it short. Endgame is about class war as much as it’s about the military and ecological varieties. It’s also about family, mortality, affinity and revulsion, memory and dreams (and the evanescence of both), art, storytelling, ruin, the will to live, and the profound desire not to—every coordinate of what was called the human condition before quadruple bypasses and bionic prosthetics made the phrase seem quaint. The miracle of Endgame is that it manages to resonate so widely and suggest so much in the context of such a claustrophobic theatrical world. Shakespeare’s Hamlet says, “I could be bounded in a nutshell, and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams.” Beckett might’ve taken that line as his aesthetic strategy.

Galati’s aesthetic strategy seems to draw on Hamlet, too—and, generally, on metaphors having to do with the theater. He tips us off to that right at the start by playing with an absurd little sight gag Beckett wrote into Endgame‘s stage directions. Beckett specifies that Hamm is initially covered with an old sheet; when Clov pulls it off, Hamm’s face is seen to be covered with a much smaller sheet, a handkerchief. That comes off, too, to reveal that Hamm is wearing dark glasses over his blind eyes—an onion-peeling effect that’s completed when Hamm takes off the glasses and wipes them with the filthy handkerchief. At Steppenwolf, most of James Schuette’s set is initially covered with an enormous, sheetlike curtain, adding yet another grimy veil that has to be parted before the other actions can take place. The curtain is more than a joke; it’s a signal that what we’re watching is to be understood as a play within a play. And maybe even a few plays within that.

William Petersen’s Hamm tries to make himself the star of every one of those plays. In fact, his famous first words are “Me—to play.” He sits on a stagey old upholstered throne—that sits, in turn, on an island of wood flooring, as if it had been ripped out of some condemned auditorium—and acts the king, now peremptory, now wounded by ingratitude, now trying to construct and reconstruct the epic narrative of his life. With all his self-reflexive talk he comes across like his near-namesake, Hamlet—if Hamlet had survived to live out a miserable exile with his grotesque parents.

All of this is interesting and fun to think about, and I feel indebted to Galati for this juicy, suggestive staging. At once irreverent and utterly serious, Galati—with a great assist from Schuette, who also designed the costumes—has created a sort of theatrical particle accelerator that allows all the charged bits of implication in this masterpiece to run up against one another and explode. Or would, if he could get it moving right. The show never achieves the velocity it should because Petersen isn’t the Hamm, or ham, he needs to be. Petersen became a star playing regular guys. Brave and clever at times, maybe, but regular. I happened to see him in William Friedkin’s 1997 remake of 12 Angry Men on cable the other day; he played the pusillanimous advertising guy on the jury who keeps changing his vote and saying things like, “Let’s put this out on the stoop and see if the cat licks it up.” Petersen absolutely nailed the panic under the character’s bonhomie.

But Hamm isn’t a regular guy and his panic is of a different existential order. He needs to be grand, pathetic, savage. Here, he isn’t.

Ian Barford, on the other hand, is a perfect Clov: worn, crippled, comic, full of loathing both for himself and his master, yet weirdly loyal and somehow able to manifest a dimpled smile out of nowhere. Francis Guinan and Martha Lavey are simply iconic as Nagg and Nell—kings of infinite space in their drums, except that they have bad dreams.

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