Review: 'Endgame' at the Kirk Douglas Theatre

Erin Conley

  • OnStage Los Angeles Critic
  • @Erinsk8

CULVER CITY CA - The term “endgame” typically refers to the final stages of a game of chess, when only a few moves remain until the inevitable conclusion. Endgame, the play by Samuel Beckett of Waiting for Godot fame, just opened at Center Theatre Group’s Kirk Douglas Theatre and uses a narrow portrait of a post-apocalyptic world to take on a much more abstract version of the word. 

Much of this play is left up to interpretation. It is easy to see how different audience members could take very different things away from it, and I don’t think there is a single correct conclusion. The set is very simple—a seemingly underground bunker with two small windows. Context clues imply the world outside is no longer very inhabitable, life as we know it has mostly ceased to exist, and that the four characters in the play are essentially alone, waiting for their inevitable deaths. How the world ended in Beckett’s universe or what exactly remains outside the windows of the room in which the story takes place is unimportant. The focus is on the monotony of daily life, but not just any daily life—one with a rapidly approaching expiration date. 

Photo credit: Craig Schwartz.

Photo credit: Craig Schwartz.

Hamm (Alan Mandell, who also directs this production) is the master of the house. Blind and unable to stand or walk, he relies on his loyal yet resentful servant, Clov (Barry McGovern), who is unable to sit. Hamm’s extremely elderly parents, Nagg (James Greene) and Nell (Charlotte Rae on opening night, Anne Gee Byrd at alternating performances) have no legs and live horrifying existences in barrels in their son’s home. Their days are incredibly cyclical, mundane, and meaningless, except as time passes, the finite resources of food and medicine that they rely on to survive are running out, a fact the characters are very aware of. The cast was fantastic, nailing the monotony and black comedy and remaining endlessly watchable throughout the relatively short one act. 

Hamm and Clov have in many ways a mutually abusive relationship, and they essentially pass the time by tormenting each other. Clov often threatens to leave, but it’s implied he stays because there isn’t much of another option. The exact state of the outside world is uncertain—small hints suggest these characters are not the absolute last humans alive, but for all intents and purposes, they may as well be. The tone of the play is darkly funny and absurd. It suggests that human existence, at least within the vacuum of the story, is arbitrary and ultimately meaningless. Hamm treats the others in his life despicably, because he believes the end is coming regardless. Clov performs the same duties day after day while enduring verbal abuse because he doesn’t know what else to do. Nagg and Nell, the most tragic characters of all, seem to rely on each other to make it through. We never learn how they ended up this way because, much like most of what happens in the play, it does not matter in the context of the daily life they now share.

In many ways, despite the tragically funny tone, the characters’ existence is so utterly terrible that their “endgame” cannot come quickly enough throughout the course of the show’s 80 minutes. It is almost the type of play that I would like to examine the text of, because there is seemingly much to interpret between the lines of what comes across in a staging. Many of the themes are similar to Beckett’s famed Waiting for Godot. Endgame is surreal and existential, and if surreal and existential is your thing, you will likely find it fascinating. As a theatergoer, I tend to respond better to absolutes, and therefore did not feel I took a ton away from this story. However, it’s also possible that was the point. 

Endgame runs through May 22nd at Culver City’s Kirk Douglas Theatre. Tickets range from $25-55 and can be purchased at