‘Endgame’ @ Steppenwolf Theatre

A warning: if you’re planning to visit your first absurdist, post-apocalyptic Samuel Beckett play, you might want to do a bit of research first. I’ve always heard: some people “get it,” some people don’t. I don’t think that I “don’t” get it — I just need to process it. Which I’m still doing.

I’m sure there are many who revel in Beckett’s minimalist, esoteric wordplay. As for the rest of us? I think we’re relieved when it’s over — especially after a long Thursday at the office. I don’t recall hearing so much yawning and shifting around in seats in the theatre before. At one point, a woman in front of me stared at the ceiling for an entire minute, as if to mentally teleport herself away from the pretension. Lucky for us, a 10 second loud burst of microphone static, a technical glitch, came in at just the right time to refocus our attention.

But there’s something to be said about a play that confounds you so much that the first thing you do is hurry back home to do your research. Do I now have a better understanding of the play? Yes and no.

But I won’t bore you (or embarrass myself) with my premature analysis.

I can say this is a straightforward production that avoids any fuss or trickery. Director Frank Galati keeps the action focused on the words and carefully scripted pauses. William Peterson, of CSI: Crime Scene Investigation fame, plays Hamm, our petulant protagonist for the evening, who has holed himself up in a small room while the rest of the world has apparently sunken into the sea (or something?). Peterson is a smart actor, and embodies this dominating and pathetic character with a perpetual twinkle in his eye — which is amazing since he wears tinted spectacles throughout. Hamm, who can’t walk and is blind, depends entirely on his spineless, subservient servant, Clov (a disheveled Ian Barford), who he orders around to accomplish all sorts of inane tasks. Francis Guinan and Steppenwolf Artistic Director Martha Lavey are the legless, nagging parents of Hamm’s, who are trapped (or protected?) in barrels. They pop out to lament on their situation, and when Hamm’s had his fill, he sets Clov to close their lids, “bottling” them in. This futile action goes on in repetition while Hamm and Clov wait for “the end”: i.e., death.

It’s well acted and confidently directed, with an appropriately grim set design by James Schuette. But it’s a puzzle I’m still mulling over. Is it all a meaningless game in the end? Who knows. Has Beckett pulled the wool over our eyes, much like Hamm, who covers his face with a handkerchief when Clov abandons him (but also doesn’t)? Your guess is as good as mine.

“Endgame” plays through June 6 at Steppenwolf’s downstairs theatre. Go here for more information >

9 thoughts on “‘Endgame’ @ Steppenwolf Theatre

  1. Saw this play last week–have seen it performed in other places, better. My biggest complaint is the lack of interaction of the actors! It appears they are acting solo! Either the audience is bored, doesn’t know this play OR the actors are having a private conversation and have forgotten they are in the entertainment business. They are BORING! Sorry, Galati, but standing in line at the grocery store provides better pauses, insights, and amusements. Nagg and Nell are the ONLY relief in this sour bitter musings of an old man who does have some funny lines–but Petersen is a miss. He may be getting all the play’s pauses and grimances, but he isn’t ‘getting’ the words. Maybe it is his favorite Beckett play, and he is too familiar with it to make it see-worthy. I am sure Petersen-Grissom fans will turn out, go away puzzled, but at least they got to see him on stage, motionless, red-eyed, putting on half a performance for 70 minutes. And I’m sure the critics will praise this half-hearted attempt to showcase theaterical acting. It’s not worth the money, sorry.

  2. This was the second production of ENDGAME I saw, and since I knew what was coming, I enjoyed it a lot more than the first (which included John Turturro and Elaine Stritch).

    Like you, I did considerable research on the play, which I think is a requirement for comprehending what you’ve seen or are about to see.

    1. Elaine stritch in a trash can? Now THAT would be something to see.

      I’m beginning to wonder if Beckett, like Pinter, just ain’t my bag.

  3. I felt the same way after seeing “Waiting for Godot” on Broadway last summer. I really didn’t “get it” and I don’t understand why it’s considered such a brilliant play. Perhaps it’s Beckett’s joke on us that we take it all so seriously?

  4. An addition that might help some “get” this play–Beckett was in a miserable marriage at the time he wrote this play, he and his wife wanted a divorce but neither would make the first move. When I learned this, I ‘understood’ Endgame–the 4 characters take on the process of being miserable and how they interact with the other. So forget a chess game, references to the end of the world as we know it, the story is about divorce!

    1. Jean – that actually makes a lot of sense! While I’m sure we’ll never really know what it’s about, I like that explanation.

  5. I am very unapologetic in saying (and have said so on my blog), that it’s ok to “not get” Beckett. I think he was writing for himself, in a totally different, mid twentieth century, Cold-War milieu, and that his works don’t really speak to me, or to many of my cohorts, as 21st century audience members with different concerns and worldviews.

    Great blog, by the way. And hi SOB and Esther!

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