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Samuel Beckett’s Endgame may be a midcentury masterpiece of existential malaise, but that doesn’t always mean it’s a joy to experience. It’s a purposefully difficult play—bleak, nihilistic, and absurd. So when it comes to the age-old dramaturgical question, “Why this play now?” we could volley back a hundred other questions. Why this play anytime? Why any play at any moment? But most fittingly: Why not this play now?
Washington Stage Guild’s production of Endgame is a fitting answer (or Beckettian non-answer) to this issue. In 2023, it’s hard not to see this play through a semi-almost-post-pandemic lens. For those of us who strictly adhered to self-quarantining, staying indoors for months while working from home, teaching children, balancing life with partners or family members, and living/working/surviving all together all of the time, Beckett’s play feels like a horrid rehash of 2020.
In this drama, the four characters live in a post-apocalyptic nightmare. There isn’t much of anything outside, neither is there much comfort within. The arrogant and domineering Hamm (WSG’s Artistic Director Bill Largess) is the blind and paraplegic tyrant of his endworld kingdom—stained, cinder block basement walls with tiny, high windows—where he verbally abuses his doddering servant, Clov (Matty Griffiths), and neglects his nonagenarian parents, Nagg (David Bryan Jackson) and Nell (Rosemary Regan), who both reside in sawdust-filled garbage cans sans lower limbs. In a world of suffering and loss, Hamm plays the self-appointed martyr, stating that he has endured the worst even while he tells a long-winded story about his own indifference and cruelty to others in the before-times.
A life-affirming and joyful play, this is not. But that does not mean it isn’t funny at times.
Griffiths provides much of the physical comedy as Clov, the only mobile cast member. He is bent at an almost right angle and creates the drama’s score as he stomps and shuffles his feet, repeatedly moving, scraping, and banging a ladder from one window to the next to check outside (not much happening), or squeakily pushing Hamm’s makeshift wheelchair. When he stops moving, he dreams of staring at the blank wall in his offstage kitchen where he plans to murder a rat. As the elderly parents, Jackson and Regan bring a bit of pathos and humor to their brief roles, rehashing their memories of their marriage, which does not seem to include many fond memories of their son. But much of the comedy is a beat too slow, a little too creaky (made the more ironic by the repeated aural motif of a ticking clock).
Largess has the lion’s share of lines and brings a dogged fierceness to his performance. He may spend much of his time wheedling Clov to give him his painkillers, but he also breaks into existential monologues, has a few mean-spirited laughs with his father, and otherwise constantly reminds us that, while the world outside—whatever is left of it—may be scary, through his greed, arrogance, and self-centeredness, he helped to make it that way.
When asked what Waiting for Godot was all about, Beckett argued that “a play is not about something; a play is something.” In the program notes, director Alan Wade elaborates on Beckett’s assertion, writing: “Endgame seems to me to be.” And, for much of the play (to quote Hamlet), “the play’s the thing.” The characters speak about the elements of a play—preparing for a final monologue or explicitly awaiting the denouement (death, release, escape, the actual end of this play).
Wade also knows when to bring a little light into this cold, gray world. In the final scene, Clov, determined to leave this hovel and enter into the real world, replaces his simple shirt and suspenders with a bright Hawaiian shirt, a small travel bag, and sandals. If the bleakness and absurdity of the play has any levity, it may be at this moment: Clov is either grossly underprepared for the nightmare world outside or maybe, just maybe, it is better out there than it is in here.
As we have all been emerging back into the world (at different paces) over the past three years, Endgame may be the tragicomedy that reminds us of the importance of sitting and just being for 90 minutes.
Endgame, written by Samuel Beckett and directed by Alan Wade, plays through Feb. 19 at Washington Stage Guild at the Undercroft Theatre in the Mount Vernon Place United Methodist Church. stageguild.org. $50–$60 (half-price with a valid student ID and $10 off for senior citizens).