William Petersen and Ian Barford in Endgame
(© Michael Brosilow)
William Petersen and Ian Barford in Endgame
(© Michael Brosilow)
For the first Samuel Beckett play in its 34-year history, Steppenwolf Theatre Company has entrusted the playwright's1957 classic, Endgame, to Tony Award-winning director Frank Galati and four members of the company's noteworthy ensemble, including TV and film star William Petersen as Hamm, the play's driving figure.

The result is an almost-breezy 75-minute performance that renders Beckett's iconic absurdist work easy to take and superficially accessible. But the treatment never plumbs the works deeper profundities.

On the surface, Endgame is about Hamm, a once-wealthy man who now lives in one bleak basement-like room of his house, impoverished, blind, and confined to a makeshift wheelchair. He still can command but no longer can control. His ancient parents (Martha Lavey and Francis Guinan), both legless owing to an accident, live with him in trash barrels. They are all served by Clov (Ian Barford), who has been Hamm's servant since boyhood. The crucial story question is whether or not Clov will stay or go, leaving Hamm helpless to die.

Larger thematic questions, however, are deliberately unanswered. Are these the survivors of a nuclear war? Is there really no more nature, as Clov says? Is life nothing more than a series of meaningless, repetitive actions without ultimate purpose or value? Is there no solace in memory? Beckett understood there can be no real answers to the metaphysical mysteries of existence. "What's happening?" Hamm demands over and over. "Something . . . is taking its course," Clov replies.

Galati has reduced the work's playing time by eliminating virtually all of the significant dramatic pauses that Beckett wrote into his script. It's a decidedly odd choice, since silence was as important a tool for Beckett as words and physical action, especially in a play in which the seemingly-slow passage of time is a vital aspect.

Moreover, the dialogue, although not rushed in the delivery of the words themselves, is made almost conversational, ignoring its presentational and theatrical possibilities. Beckett has written heightened speech -- some of it very comical, some wistful, some richly ironic -- but the cast delivers it as casual and even bland talk. Words and phrases are not savored, and time is not taken to hit all the play's many comic moments.