At the beautiful new Cultural Arts Center at Silver Spring, all concrete and lucid glass, there is a room full of junk encased in a cage of twine. On the dust-encrusted floor the scattered remains of a life no longer lived lie rusted and useless: an old globe, the grill from a heater or a fan. Two large wooden dumpsters bump up against the back wall. In the middle of the room there is a chair over which a stained white sheet drapes like an autopsy shroud; underneath the sheet is Hamm (Gordon Adams), the master of the place. He is junk, too.
The great playwright Samuel Beckett is best known for Waiting for Godot, but for my money it is this play which is his funniest, most moving and most accessible. And, I’m delighted to report, Doorway Arts Ensemble (in conjunction with Arts Alive Theatre) plays the hell out of it.
In chess (Beckett was an enthusiast), the endgame is the part after all the bloody conflict has been resolved, the outcome is no longer in doubt, and it falls upon one contestant to deliver the coup de gras to the other. So it is here: Endgame is a place where all the juice has been sucked out of life, and there is nothing left to do but to wait for the ax to fall. “Finished, it’s finished, nearly finished, it must be nearly finished,” says Clov (Michael Harris), to open the play, and near the end (this is no spoiler) Hamm observes, “moments for nothing, now as always, time was never and time is over, reckoning closed and story ended,” but of course, the reckoning is never closed and the story is never ended.
Endgame is the vivid and surgical dissection of a world in which love and the possibility of joy no longer exist. Hamm, a blind man who cannot stand, and Clov, a lame man who cannot sit, thoroughly detest each other and yet cannot leave – a situation instantly recognizable to the millions of people locked into dysfunctional relationships. Hamm keeps his father Nagg (Doug Krentzlin) – his “accursed progenitor” – in one dumpster and his mother Nell (Susan Holiday) in the other. (Beckett was certainly aware that the scriptural “fires of Gehenna” – the Christian Hell [Matt. 10:28] – actually referred to a rubbish heap in the Valley of Hinnom.) Hamm has Clov wheel him to the room’s two windows in a fruitless attempt to discern life or activity outside (he has Clov do the looking and reporting) but he gets, as Clov puts it, “zero…zero…and zero.”
Even their names suggest a juicy happiness – what could be tastier, after all, than ham baked with cloves? – but the only eating that gets done is by Nagg, of a stale biscuit he attempts to share with Nell. Clov threatens to leave, or to die, but in the end he is still around. It is a day, in short, like any other day in Samuel Beckett’s little Hell.
To bring a play of such monomaniacal genius into full bloom, a production must exhibit complete unity of purpose, and feature actors who fully embody the playwright’s awe-ful intentions. This one does, and it is a joy to behold. Krentzlin and Holliday wear a patina of despair like a coat of grime from their dumpster-driven lives. Harris plays Clov as though he was a roadie for a band from Hell, stiff-legged and furious, and he makes his interactions with Hamm seem like the reactions of a willful adult son to a father upon whom he has grown hopelessly dependent. He manages to make this nasty man in a nasty universe somehow sympathetic and understandable. It is a wonderful performance.
And Adams as Hamm, surpasses wonderful. He gives us a Hamm who has embraced despair, has affirmed his loveless universe, whose feckless fearlessness in the face of crushing defeat and endless dim light becomes, perversely, a beacon for us. Though we know that this ocean of grayness, this endless endgame, has come about because of Hamm’s refutation of love – his cruelty to Clov, for example, and to his neighbor, Mother Pegg – we come to understand, and even love, Adams’ Hamm, who is every inch himself at every moment. It is a bravura performance made even more remarkable in that it appears to be Adams’ professional debut. Adams, a mature man, is a student at the Studio Theater Conservatory, and may be transitioning to the acting profession after completing some less exciting career, such as heart surgeon or astronaut.
When every actor gives a terrific performance and everyone is on the same page as the author, credit must go to the director. Perry T. Schwartz (who is also responsible for the set) has done a first-rate job with this fine, fine production.
The best theater always informs the mind and moves the soul. If you emerge from that dirty room into the Arts Center’s gleaming hall and discern the sweetness of the life and movement around you, Endgame will have done its job. And you will, and it does.
By Samuel Beckett
Directed by Perry T. Schwartz
Produced by Doorway Arts Ensemble and Arts Alive Theatre
Reviewed by Tim Treanor
[Editor’s note: Doug Krentzlin may already be familiar to our readers as the one-time DC theatre critic, who left that profession to devote more time to his acting career.]