University Wits

Like DeLaria, David Greenspan is known for his outré histrionics. As Winnie's husband, Willie, he speaks in rhythmic groans that recall a stroke victim. In the second act, when he mechanically crawls to center stage resembling a lunatic Uncle Sam, his autism is a relief after DeLaria's logorrhea.

But there is a method to DeLaria's whirling dervish. In the first act her shenanigans unnerve the audience. Staring fixedly at them, she appeals to their sympathy. But her performance alienates them. By the second act, she's submerged up to her neck in sand, bereft of her heaving bosoms, and panicked at the prospect of losing Willie, her substandard companion; one feels her anxiety, not from her flailing around, but from her frightened eyes. The less she acts, the more the audience understands. DeLaria's antics depict a woman struggling valiantly against life. This Winnie will not go gently.

If Winnie and Willie live on the beach, the clowns of Beckett's Endgame at the Irish Rep reside in a rundown tenement, maybe in the Bronx. Clad in filthy striped pajamas, Adam Heller's Clov is the manic caretaker in this nursing home from hell, scurrying around at master Hamm's beck and call, gamely moving Hamm's chair a half-inch to the right or checking the ashbins to confirm that Hamm's parents, Nagg and Nell, are still alive. Tony Roberts’s wry and regal Hamm presides over the fracas with Heller as his long-suffering straight man. Together they evoke a sad, comic duo from the Catskills who have gone south, literally and metaphorically. Roberts numbly comforts himself: "We're getting on." But there is no warmth or connection here, only duty. They are stage partners, nothing more. Roberts effectively shows the twilight melancholy of Hamm, but Heller is too intent on getting to the kitchen, or getting out of the apartment, to care. The heart of the production beats in Alvin Epstein's half-dead wraith Nagg, who despite his senility is the only one who remembers living. The final tableau of Hamm dying, unaware that faithful Clov has stayed anyway to witness his last breaths, fails to tug at the heartstrings because the gesture feels artificial: Clov left before the play began.

Alvin Epstein and Kathryn Grody in Endgame
photo: Carol Rosegg
Alvin Epstein and Kathryn Grody in Endgame


By Samuel Beckett
Irish Repertory Theatre
132 West 22nd Street
Through April 10

Happy Days
By Samuel Beckett
Classic Stage Company


  • Talking Trash
    From a garbage can, a lesson in the art of Beckettian acting
    By Charles McNulty
  • Kirsten Bowen is an M.F.A. student in Dramaturgy at A.R.T.'s Institute for Advanced Theater Training at Harvard University

    Beckett under glass
    By Anne Gridley

    If I were to walk into a museum dedicated to the work of Samuel Beckett and say, "I'd like to see a production of Endgame," I should think that the good curators would have shown me something like what recently played at the Irish Rep. Beckett's impossible call for "grey light" made possible by a scrim at the opening, creates the appropriate emotional attitude. Downstage, large drums contain Nagg and Nell. Two windows. One chair on castors. A handkerchief. Check, check, check, and check. What is problematic about Charlotte Moore's clean production of Beckett's play is not that she adhered to the playwright's intentions, but the reverence with which she did so. "Do you understand who this is," Moore and her capable cast seem to be asking, "This is Samuel Beckett." I may as well have been looking at the Shroud of Turin.

    To be sure, the Beckett estate is notoriously strict. Many experimental approaches have been rejected or otherwise restricted, such as JoAnne Akalaitis's Endgame at A.R.T., where the author refused to have his name attached to the show. Hamm's first lines are "Me—to play." Beckett's estate certainly leaves little room to play, but it is the job of the director and the actors to liberate the intentions even within the most stringent restrictions.

    As Nagg, Alvin Epstein managed to find some freedom, even though he was limited—not only by Beckett's estate but by Beckett's staging. Quite literally, he must act from a garbage can. Yet he was constantly exploring and developing his own vocabulary for the character. His previous experience with Beckett—Epstein appeared in the American premieres of both Waiting for Godot and Endgame—may have helped him take the Nobel Prize-winning playwright a little less seriously. At least Epstein does not treat Beckett as a holy relic. As Clov, Adam Heller shows great variety of non-verbal expression. His laughs, coughs, and shambling steps range from subjugated to hysterical. Too often when he speaks, however, he runs into the major problem of this production. Both Heller and Tony Roberts as Hamm are frequently found orating, instead of acting. This is an easy trap. Beckett's language is nothing if not poetic. But I found myself thinking (especially during Hamm's lengthy speeches) that I could just go home and read the play myself. I was being talked at instead of talked to. Because of the quality of sacredness that pervaded the production, there seemed to be a reluctance to dig deeper and explore the language more fully.

    To treat a great piece of art with reverential purity encases it forever within a glass frame.

    Anne Gridley is an M.F.A. student in Dramaturgy and Script Development at Columbia University's School of the Arts.

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