Review: 'Endgame' at the Long Wharf Theatre

Tara Kennedy

OnStage Connecticut Critic

Long Wharf’s current offering promises to be a real treat: Brian Dennehy and Reg E. Cathey star in Samuel Beckett’s tragicomedy “Endgame.” Beckett’s work – originally in French (titled “Fin de Partie”) – was translated into English by Beckett himself, who gave it the English title “Endgame,” a reference to chess when few pieces remain on the board. Fitting, since Beckett was an avid chess player and this play only has 4 performers. 

Beckett was very particular about how his works were to be performed, and stage directions and design are to remain as written. In the mid-1980s, the American Repertory Theater (A.R.T.) in Cambridge, MA managed to piss the playwright off by setting the play in an abandoned subway instead of the small, two-windowed room that the work calls for. “Any production of ‘Endgame’ which ignores my stage directions is completely unacceptable to me,” declared Beckett in an insert in the program after the lawsuit that Grove Press filed against A.R.T.  was settled. “The American Repertory Theater production which dismisses my directions is a complete parody of the play as conceived by me. Anybody who cares for the work couldn't fail to be disgusted by this.”

It comes as no surprise that Beckett would be so passionate about how his works are performed. He is considered the father of the so-called “Theatre of the Absurd,” a term grown out of the existentialist movement where storytelling conventions of playwriting are tossed aside in favor of examining the fundamentals of the human condition in bizarre ways.  So, if you are looking for a tidy, linear plot, you won’t find it here. What you will find is the perception or idea of relationships: what they mean, how they function (or dysfunction), and their seeming purpose; all from the point of view of an extreme pessimist. 

Loosely, the play takes place somewhere on Earth and it’s presumably the end of the world as we know it (insert R.E.M. joke here). We are looking in on four persons who are still around: Hamm (Brian Dennehy), Clov (Reg E. Cathey), Nagg (Joe Grifasi), and Nell (Lynn Cohen). Their surroundings aren’t much to look at: a small room, with cluttered corners piled with greatly distressed furniture, books, papers, and plaster dust, and displaying two small cellar-style windows to the gray out-of-doors (a perfect post-apocalyptic set design by Eugene Lee). Each character has an affliction of some sort: Hamm cannot stand nor see; Clov, Hamm’s servant, cannot sit; Nagg and Nell live in individual trash bins and have no legs. 

There is nothing uplifting about this play, but don’t despair: there is the “comedy” in “tragicomedy!” This is mostly due to the excellent performances by Cathey and Dennehy. Beckett’s language is funny in its absurdity, but delivery and direction are everything; Cathey, Dennehy, and Edelstein are an unstoppable combination in that regard. A couple of examples: Cathey’s disapproving looks at a stepladder that never seems to be where he wants it to be is damn funny; Dennehy’s comment every time Cathey leaves the room, slamming the metal door in frustration, “We’re getting on.” It’s the performance that makes or breaks this play because, otherwise, what’s the point of watching?

Well, there are the Words on the Paper.

There is meaning behind the dialogue between the four characters that reveal more about their interpersonal relationships, which I won’t reveal here. Not everyone enjoys analyzing dense, multilayered language, so if that isn’t your cup of tea, you might skip this play. But as someone who enjoys analyzing language and meaning in plays, I found myself writing down numerous significant exchanges between the characters, mostly demonstrating the banality of life and how other people are both our ultimate need and burden. So, while Sartre’s works remind us that “Hell is other people,” Beckett writes “Endgame” to remind us that, yes, Hell is other people, but people can also be our salvation and reason for living.     

Photo: Brian Dennehy, left, and Reg E. Cathey as Hamm and Clov in "Endgame" at Long Wharf Theatre. (T. Charles Erickson)