We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.
Intriguing pairings have been legion on local stages of lateKing and van Griethuysen at the Folger, Kissinger and Nixon at Round House, boy and horse at Olneybut none have been nearly so rewarding as Endgame’s Henley-Hemmingsen reunion at Studio 1019.
Brian Hemmingsen’s the big one… hulking, malevolent, yet with a vulnerable streak that surfaces in moments of reflection. His laughter can be cruel, his tears are generally of the alligator variety, but let him ponder his place in the cosmos and he can turn teddy-bearish in an instant. In Washington Shakespeare Company’s Waiting for Godot a few years back, the actor was achingly affecting doing nothing more than recalling the smell of a carrot. In Scena’s Endgame, his character comes up empty-handed when reaching for a wall, and his startled expression contains more intimations of mortality than the flailings of any incipient flatliner on ER.
Christopher Henley is smaller, craftier, less evidently dangerous. Still, there’s something disquieting about that blank expression he so often affects. You know there’s plenty going on behind itwheels grinding, animosity seethingand when he moves, tension escapes him in bursts of fidgeting that are baroque enough to seem choreographed. Though he’s always put-upon, he’s rarely a victim. Rather, he comes across as someone who, when dealt a bad hand by life, finds ways of playing it mischievously. In Endgame, he lists to the left almost jauntily, as if one leg were slightly shorter than the other and he’s decided to make leaning a point of style. Ordered up a ladder with a telescope, he drops it (“I did it on purpose”) just to hear the clatter. Tormented by a flea, he becomes a live-action cartoonscratching personified.
In the process of playing everything from Shepard to Shakespeare in some 40 area productions, Hemmingsen and Henley have developed a symbiosis over the years. They can each be terrific on their own, but put them together as, say, the feral brothers in Orphans, and their strengths complement each other’s to an almost alarming degree. Henley got thrown around a lot in that one, and somehow it was Hemmingsen who seemed to sustain the bruises. Their partnering has become organic, central, a stylistic marriage of disparate sensibilities.
In Endgame, Samuel Beckett’s existential take on King Lear, Hemmingsen and Henley play Hamm and Clov: a sightless, crippled master and his lame, foolish slave. Hamm cannot rise, Clov cannot sit, and each is wholly dependent on the other. In Scena’s production, they occupy a filthy room with two small windows so grimy that the glass admits no light. The only furnishings are the makeshift wheelchair in which Hamm sits and two metallic oil drums in which his legless, half-dead parents (Richard Mancini and Tricia McCauley) reside, their stumps festering in wet sand.
It is a dying world, and these last survivors are whiling away their desolation with somber gallows humor: Henley shuffling from window to window, dragging a stepladder and giggling mirthlessly, Hemmingsen snapping orders and meditating aloud on the ebbing of life and power.
“We do what we can,” says Hamm. “We shouldn’t,” replies Clov. The rhythms are vaudeville, the mood pure despair. Imagine a Beckettian Laurel & Hardy, awaiting not Godot, but death, and you just about have the picture.
Not everything about Robert McNamara’s smart, mordantly funny production is as inspired as his central casting. The director is not one to take liberties with Beckett, the way Joy Zinoman did earlier this season with her fascinating, nontraditionally cast Waiting for Godot, but he sometimes lets his performers take liberties they shouldn’t. In crafting business for his leads, McNamara has been precise and economical, but every time the lids pop open on those oil drums, the dramatic tension goes south in seconds. Mancini looks appropriately ancient, but the director allows him to work way too hard on being interesting, while McCauley compounds the problem of being too young by half for her role by adopting an annoying, singsongy vocal style. Fortunately, the playwright closes the lids on them fairly early in the play, after which Hamm and Clov get to torment and amuse one another (and the audience) without further interruption.
Lynn Joslin’s flat, chilly lighting is just right, as are Alisa Mandel’s costumes (particularly the filthy handkerchief that covers Hamm’s face at the play’s outset). And Michael Stepowany’s setting could hardly be improved upon. Its ungrouted, grease-streaked tile walls say more about the souring of the world and its last inhabitants than any viewer will really want to know.
It’s a good week for designers, actually. Even viewers who think William Marchant’s ’50s computer comedy, The Desk Set, is a crock are going to flip over the Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired office in which Daniel Conway has housed it at Studio Theatre. Conway’s deco patternscreated in alternating blond and dark woods with aluminum edgingare a real show in themselves. Floor swirls reroute traffic flow around the mushroomlike column that pays homage to Wright’s Johnson Wax headquarters. Broad, horizontal bands of wood delineate the bookshelves and give the walls a sleek, ’50s-moderne feel while tying in neatly with the thinner plywood layers visible in the curved edges of the deco desktops. The aluminum window frames and doors, the slatted wood blinds, and the lighting fixtures all get your attention. And Kaye Voyce’s character-defining costumesbrassily assertive and broad-shouldered for the women, nebbishy and soft for the menare just as smart.
The show they’re supporting isn’t quite the riot you want it to be; nor is it the savvy look back at computer infancy the folks at Studio seem to think it is. It’s just the same dopey romantic-comedy-with-a-gimmick that it was in its ’50s incarnations as a modest Broadway hit and a film vehicle for Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy.
Brian Robert Mani plays an efficiency expert (the Tracy role) who wants to install an electronic brain called Emmarac in the middle of the TV network research department headed by briskly brilliant Holly Twyford (the Hepburn role). She and her underlings fear for their jobs, but romance and common sense carry the day. Michelle T. Hall and Patricia Smith Melton have blended Marchant’s original script with the screenplay by Henry and Phoebe Ephron (Nora’s parents) reasonably seamlessly, which is not to suggest the result couldn’t use some editing. The new, five-author hybrid is a good hour longer than the film, and it feels it.
Still, J.R. Sullivan’s staging is pleasant enough. Twyford and Mani are appealingly matched as the central couple, and don’t particularly make you think of their film forebears. T.J. Edwards takes a stab at turning shambling into an art form as Mani’s romantic competition (the Gig Young role…and I’ll stop that right now). Also amusing are Mike Chamberlin and Janet Pryce in bit parts as a smarmy lawyer and a curvaceous secretary’s secretary, Makela Spielman as the office radical, Susan Lynskey as the research department’s resident sweet young thing, and Carver Hudson as a good-time gal facing spinsterhood with much the same quips and timing Rose Marie brought to The Dick Van Dyke Show.
The broad outlines of The Desk Set’s plot may not hold up particularly wellits research department mostly fields queries about Longfellow poems and the names of Santa’s reindeer, presumably to make battle lines clear in what will turn out to be an utterly spurious human-vs.-machine conflictbut the specifics of Studio’s mounting are right on the money. Check out the stuff on the researchers’ desks, and you’ll discover that the office radical has a framed photo of the Rosenbergs, the sweet young thing has a picture of Grace Kelly, and the leading lady has a snapshot of the actor playing her beloved as a much younger man. Attention, in other words, has not merely been paid, but lavished on this production. Would that the script warranted it. CP