Absurdist veterans Alan Mandell and Barry McGovern get back to Beckett at the Kirk Douglas Theatre.
Samuel Beckett spent his playwriting career bending and contorting the human condition until it made some sort of sense to him. In Endgame, the playwright ruminates on the end of life as a stalemate, a chess game in which the last remaining pieces are out of moves. "Play and lose and have done with losing," the decrepit old man Hamm (played by Alan Mandell) says, wishing — like everyone else in the play — that he could "have done" with anything. Beckett's 1957 work is bleak, grotesquely humorous, and, in the wrong hands, unwatchable.
Fortunately, you won't find two actors as dialed in to the playwright's decidedly skewed vision as Alan Mandell and Barry McGovern, who have danced Beckett's existential tango more than a few times before, both apart and together. Mandell toured with the original production of Endgame under Beckett's direction, and McGovern has appeared in several works including the solo show I'll Go On. The pair made for a superb Vladimir and Estragon in a 2012 revival of Waiting for Godot. In reuniting for Center Theatre Group's production of Endgame, under Mandel's direction at the Kirk Douglas Theatre, these pros have given L.A. playgoing audiences a rare, if unusual, gift.
The scene is a sitting room that resembles a dungeon (designed by John Iacovelli) to suggest an enclosed castle battlement. Somewhere beyond these walls, oblivion looms if only someone had the wherewithal to go out and find it. When Hamm's disgruntled servant Clov (McGovern) draws back the blinds, the windows are supposed to overlook the sea, but no light comes through. Not that that matters much, since Hamm is blind. Adjacent ashbins house Hamm's elderly parents, Nagg (James Greene) and Nell (Anne Gee Byrd, sharing the role with Charlotte Rae), whom Hamm periodically rouses to listen to his ramblings.
We are witnessing a single day, which is essentially a repetition of thousands of days played out in Hamm's miserable existence. He awakens to find himself still alive, still in pain, and still trying to figure out why he is on earth. Clove is losing patience. When he says, "I'll leave you now," he means for good, and Clov is the only character who isn't at death's door. But every time Hamm blows his whistle, Clov returns bearing items like a stuffed dog, a pike, a stepladder, or whatever else Hamm demands. "There's one thing I'll never understand. Why I always obey you," he says to Hamm in one of his less gruff moments. "Perhaps it's compassion," returns Hamm.
While some sort of end is near, none of the characters know it. McGovern's Clov is caught between malevolence toward the old man, who is part father figure, and his obligation to the drudgery of routine. He can grumble and threaten all he wants, but Clov's legs don't work so well either. Tromping loudly between the windows the trash cans and the offstage pantry to battle rats, McGovern can infuse a simple chuckle with three different types of malevolence. "I've got things to do," he repeats, utterly unaware of the irony of his words. Nobody in Endgame has things to do.
In their single scene together, Byrd and Greene — with only their heads visible — demonstrate the artistry of concentration, stillness, and listening. Nagg and Nell have nothing left except snippets of memories. Their attempts to connect, their discussion of love and related matters veer between weariness and gallows humor. They are a darkly delightful pair.
Seated in a wheelchair, with his legs invisible under a ratty blanket, his eyes hidden behind dark lenses, Mandell rests stationary for the bulk of the production's 80 minutes. Yet, with rich voice and his manipulative cajoling, the actor makes Hamm a figure of such desperation, sorrow, and faded majesty that you can't help wishing someone would give the now 88-year-old actor a crack at playing King Lear. There may be no finer interpreter of Beckett living.
Hamm envisions himself as a performer playing out his final act on life's stage. Whether he's ultimately in a tragedy a comedy or some hybrid, only Beckett would know. With McGovern and Mandell at the controls, however, Endgame gives us a rich sampling of the whole existential menu.