nytheatre.com review by Matthew Freeman
April 30, 2008
[Editor's Note: You can find a synopsis of Endgame on Wikipedia.]
"Soon I will have finished with this story. Unless I bring in other characters. But where would I find them?"
With that series of lines, John Turturro (with a little help from Samuel Beckett) takes the audience at BAM from somberness to rolling laughter. It's in moments like this where the strength and tension that is integral to Endgame comes into focus. The challenges for the audience, for the actors, for the direction are written into the text. Certainly Endgame is funny; but it is also uniquely unfunny. The famous line, spoken by Nagg, is "Nothing is funnier than unhappiness." It's a truth, but it's not a solution. How then, to approach delivering the laugh lines in Endgame? Are they punchlines? Or should they be sent into the ether like puffs of smoke?
In the production current running at BAM, the focus seems to be on a muscular and vibrant version of the play, which works intermittently. Certainly it makes for a watchable and even exciting event, but it often resists the harder edges that make Endgame, essentially, about dying. I can imagine no human being further from death than John Turturro's Hamm: he is more full of life than anyone in the room. His stories are expertly hilarious and fun. They are never, though, the last gasps of a petty tyrant in a failed kingdom. When Turturro cries "You're on earth! There's no cure for that!" we all laugh a deep belly laugh at the delivery. The meaning, though, seems buried under our mutual contract to enjoy ourselves despite the gloom.
Max Casella (who many know from his television work, and who is an accomplished stage actor) is more than a match for Turturro's charisma in the role of Clov. In the roles of Nagg and Nell, in their iconic ashbins, are Alvin Epstein and Elaine Stritch To see them perform together, in these roles, is all the argument that needs be made for wrangling up a ticket for the production.
Suffice to say I found myself happy as I watched Endgame. I laughed and smiled. I never felt, though, the sense of longing and desperation that I felt watching Fiona Shaw perform Happy Days at BAM earlier this year. Shaw's Winnie had humor that bloomed naturally from the rocks and dust. Turturro's Hamm seems to be telling a series of jokes.
It doesn't help that next to Turturro, onstage, is Epstein. His performance is perfect, and so, for her part is Stritch (whatever "diva" label comes with her is shed the moment she speaks.) And despite my misgivings, Turturro certainly has his moments, especially in conversation with Casella, whose performance is never less than interesting, and occasionally inspired.
I suspect that this production would be welcoming to someone who finds Beckett's work intimidating or mystifying: the play is clearly told, and the humor is brought to the fore by director Andrei Belgrader, with an eye on accessibility. For those that are among Beckett's many devotees, its always a rare pleasure to see Beckett's work given so many wonderful resources. Endgame at BAM may not plumb the play's depths; but it never fails to entertain.