In the midst of Samuel Beckett’s Endgame at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, Hamm (John Turturro) asks worriedly: “We’re not beginning to . . . to
. . . mean something?” His servant, Clov (Max Casella), replies: “Mean something! You and I, mean something! That’s a good one.”
Clov may scoff, but since its first performance 51 years ago at the Royal Court in London, Endgame has meant many things to scholars, critics, and audiences: a response to Descartes, a religious meditation, a fable of nuclear devastation, an update of Hamlet, an exemplar of existentialism, an exposé of Beckett’s marriage, a sequel to Waiting for Godot, an allegory for the theater itself. The current production, directed by Andrei Belgrader, participates in none of these readings: It portrays Clov as perhaps more defiant than normal and Hamm as somewhat less decrepit, yet it declines to offer much in the way of interpretation.
This comes as a relief and a bother. Yes, we receive Beckett’s noted tale clearly—his portrait of a wheelchair-bound despot, his cringing servant, and his two parents stowed in matching ashcans, a quartet who are perhaps the last survivors of a failing world. The lack of a “concept” allows the cast to do their work unencumbered by ideology. But it makes for a somewhat attenuated production, without a strong directorial sense to bind it. The actors all succeed individually, but they don’t seem to have agreed on exactly what sort of play they’re participating in. While the opening-night performance boasted fine scenes, they felt consecutive rather than cumulative.
Regarding Endgame, Beckett insisted: “If people want to have headaches among the overtones, let them. And provide their own aspirin.” Yet, in his own approach, he did favor the use of a governing metaphor, particularly the idea of the chess match. When Beckett served as director, he told the actor playing Hamm: “Hamm is the king in this chess game lost from the start. . . . He is only trying to delay the inevitable end. Each of his gestures is one of the last useless moves which put off the end. He’s a bad player.”
Turturro may be a bad player, but he is not a bad actor. Resplendent in fur-lined robe, decayed pajamas, and tarboosh, his sunken eyes hidden by dark glasses, he uses his pleasant, phlegmy voice to utter some amusing line readings that set the audience cackling. This makes for a droller and slightly sunnier Beckett. (As Hamm himself says: “Nothing is funnier than unhappiness.”) But like Fiona Shaw’s Winnie, in the Happy Days that played at BAM a few months ago, Turturro’s Hamm doesn’t communicate the anguish that occasions his quips, his awareness of “the inevitable end.” Theodore Adorno said that in Endgame, “Only the face remains on which the tears have dried up,” but Turturro’s Hamm—autocratic, incapable, self-satisfied, and oddly engaging—seems never to have cried them.
Hamm is a creature devoid of empathy, and yet he must nevertheless suggest sustained, intricate relationships with the other characters in the play: his servant, Clov, and his legless forebears, Nagg and Nell. Turturro’s performance and Belgrader’s production don’t give a sense of this connectedness or rapport. The actors adopt rather different styles: Casella, who looks like he’s cut his hair with a power mower, attempts a sort of insolent realism; the marvelous Alvin Epstein plays Nagg with a toothless absurdity, mouthing his biscuit with senile abandon; Elaine Stritch, with her bright eyes and bleached teeth, still retains some of her leading-lady glamour as Nell. The sense, then, is not of one chess game, but of four distinct matches, each played by a single competitor, each both a win and a loss. This echoes the pre-show music, a loop that plays a growly version of “My Way.” Regrets, we have a few. We’d have less if only Belgrader had imposed—and no, not in a shy way—more of a directorial vision on the production.