John Turturro and Max Casella in Endgame
(© Richard Termine )
John Turturro and Max Casella in Endgame
(© Richard Termine )
John Turturro provides a surprisingly inert performance in Samuel Beckett's Endgame, now playing BAM's Harvey Theater; but luckily this disappointing turn is offset by stellar work from co-stars Max Casella, Alvin Epstein, and Elaine Stritch, who are the bright spots in director Andrei Belgrader's unfortunately uneven production.

Set in a post-apocalyptic world, Endgame is a semi-comic meditation on death in which the blind and wheelchair-bound Hamm (Turturro) presides over his oddly constructed family -- one that includes his servant/surrogate son Clov (Casella) and Hamm's trashcan-inhabiting parents Nagg (Epstein) and Nell (Stritch).

Turturro speaks in a sonorous voice and gesticulates grandly as if performing a particularly hammy rendition of a Shakespeare play. It's not a bad choice, as it gives added meaning to the character's name and highlights Beckett's allusions to The Tempest (which include the line "our revels now are ended" and a relationship between Hamm and Clov that mirrors that of Prospero and Caliban). However, there still needs to be something underneath his lines to give them weight and impact. Too often, everything the actor says seems so superficial that it's easy to drift off during his lengthy monologues.

Thankfully, Casella is riveting as Clov. From his first silent moments onstage -- in which he employs a stylized walk that is both comic and indicative of the character's painful leg condition -- Casella infuses the production with a welcome energy. It's a somewhat vaudevillian turn that allows him to mine all of the sly humor within the text while simultaneously showcasing Clov's sullen resentment and desperate need to escape from Hamm's influence.

Epstein -- who originated the role of Clov in the play's American premiere, and has previously essayed both Hamm and Nagg to great acclaim -- makes the most of every one of his appearances. He conveys volumes with a silent smacking of his gums, a rolling of his eyes, and a strained manner of speech that sounds like it comes from somewhere on the other side of death. He also has wonderful chemistry with Stritch; there's a tenderness to the Nagg-Nell relationship that makes their brief scene together poignant and beautiful.

When she asks, "Have you anything else to say to me?" it's crystal clear that she is attempting to communicate a final goodbye to him, only he doesn't realize it. Later, when he knocks on the lid of her trashcan and she fails to answer, the look on his face is absolutely devastating.

Set designer Anita Stewart wisely walls off the bulk of the large Harvey stage, bringing all of the action closer to the audience so that it is both more immediate and more claustrophobic. The decaying façade is moodily lit by Michael Chybowski, and Candice Donnelly's costumes also indicate that the entire place and those within it have definitely gone to seed.

Belgrader has included several nice touches to bring out the humor in Beckett's script, but ultimately has to share in the blame for Turturro's leaden performance. Since Hamm is at both the literal and figurative center of the play, the entire piece becomes unbalanced.