Is there a 20th-century playwright besides Samuel Beckett who has been subject to critical studies, biography and star-studded revivals? Perhaps it's because his theatrically challenging oeuvre of nihilism and rueful laughter -- call it bleak comedy -- makes him one of the few post-World War II authors who have figured out how to make existentialism amusing to adults. His plays explore the Big Themes: solitude in the universe, the mutability of love and obligation, and, finally, what do age and infirmity bring us?
Endgame offers us an exotically dismal quartet. There's Hamm, blind and paralyzed, a tyrant in a gray cell. There's his attendant, the resentfully dutiful Clov. And then, the detail that electrified audiences in 1957, when the play premiered: Hamm's parents, Nell and Nagg, who are stashed in two ashbins onstage for the entirety of the play. Think of the third act of Oedipus Rex, if Oedi had kept Laios and mother Iocasta handy for commentary but stashed in the Delphic Oracle's pit.
Much of Endgame is dialogue between Hamm and Clov, who bicker and make up, ponder and dismiss the future. Time is suspended -- pain is not. Hamm: Yesterday! What does that mean? Yesterday! Clov (violently): That means that bloody awful day, long ago, before this bloody awful day. (This is actually an explosively humorous moment in the play.)
In the Washington University Performing Arts Department's pitch-perfect and utterly engrossing production of Endgame, however, it's easy to see Beckett's ongoing allure. The four superb college-age actors are rather young for these seasoned roles, yet moments after the play begins, Justin Sund is completely convincing as the energetic despot Hamm and John Spernoga is seen to have been ideally cast as Clov, the only ambulatory actor. Their interaction is riveting, and they're listening to one another. Though I shudder to think of the rehearsal process -- Beckett builds in pauses and gaps in the action, not to mention the unspeakable cruelty of requiring two actors to spend hours crouched in the ashbins. But director Andrea Urice has a light hand with the heavy stuff, though she's obviously treating her student actors like professionals: This level of precision is no accident.
An endgame in chess comes when (not counting the king) very few pieces remain on the board. As the hardy dustbin duo, Nagg and Nell, Hal Moncrief and Nastaran Ahmadi are powdered chalk-white and costumed in pale rags that could pass as pajamas or shrouds. With these two, Beckett explores the overfamiliarity that comes with a long-term companionship. Nagg: Can you hear me? Nell: Yes. And you? Nagg: Yes. (Pause) Our hearing hasn't failed. Nell: Our what? Moncrief and Ahmadi make these puppet-roles both tender and impervious, and they do more with their fingers on the bin lids when "entering" (raising the lid) than many actors could do with their whole bodies. Indeed, the details of Endgame couldn't be sharper: Alison Heryer's costumes (the long-suffering Clov wears a suit that suggests a straitjacket), and Rick Kuykendall's lighting (beautifully modulating this claustrophobic space) helps make this production a multifaceted jewel. It's a real shame the run is so short -- this Endgame is both homage to and explication du texte of Beckett.