End of the World As We Know It
Endgame, Not I, Footfalls, Rockaby, Six Characters in Search of an Author
By Myron Meisel
The Best Endgame You’re Likely to See
Moments before heading out to witness Alan Mandell’s staging of Endgame at the Kirk Douglas Theatre, just before sundown, I lit my first yahrtzeit candle to commemorate the first anniversary on the ancient lunar calendar of the death of my father. Leaving it to burn in my absence permitted me to approach Samuel Beckett’s 1957 classic with suitable sobriety about mortality.
How palliative to encounter such waves of purgative laughter from the audience that, if recorded to a single track, might be mistaken for the crowd at a Neil Simon show (the earlier, funnier ones).
For so steeped has our culture become in Beckett’s brand of nihilist vaudeville, that his once forbidding obscurity has flowered into ironic delight as we embrace the ironies of forlorn despair with enthused empathy. Beckett always maintained his intellectual cragginess was funny, the cosmic joke of bleak existence and futile effort upon humankind, and after a half century, we’re now hip to the gags.
Paradoxically, for our social media cauldron of “meta-“ affectations, suffused with assumed attitudes and desperation for anonymous, mass validation, Beckett’s stark, uncompromising (yet so sly) wisdom concerning the human condition only serves to make his blighted gestures capable of continual renewal. This is only one of many indications that Endgame remains a towering masterpiece of dramatic literature.
All of which is to note that Mandell’s production may not only be the finest realization of Endgame that I’ve ever seen, but conceivably the best any of us is likely to encounter. Rigorously hewing to the letter and spirit of the text allows its antic antidote to despair to blossom. What’s most striking is the comfort of its fidelity to Beckett’s vision: Intricate rhythms and beats to the lines and pauses, without precise rendition, mire its dolorous flights of fancy in gloom instead of dazzling doom — lilt in lieu of lyricism.
Shaking off the dust of academic exegeses, this Endgame inhabits theatrical space with the barest of life, echoing magisterially in the confines of its imprisoning room. Sonorously attuned to both the desolation and the absurdity, Mandell’s mellifluous performance as Hamm, as cruelly self-centered as Pere Ubu yet so poignantly at the end of his tether, reminded me of the dulcet voice of John Gielgud, an unlikely choice for the part, but one which confers a tragic dimension on a terminally unsympathetic character, discomfittingly identifiable as part of all of us. As, in his contrasting way, can we see our exasperated people-pleasing peonage in Barry McGovern’s nimbly servile Clov.
Mandell’s extensive Beckett pedigree derives from the author himself, under whose direction he toured in both this play and Waiting for Godot, the latter he also assayed with McGovern in 2012 at the Mark Taper Forum. For his own part, anyone who saw McGovern’s inventive one-man show based on Beckett’s prose at this same theater in 2014 knows he inhabits the playwright in his very bones. James Greene played Nagg, Hamm’s father confined to a trash bin, for Endgame’s longest run in New York, back in 1984, and in the three decades since he has aged in the barrel to a supple Irish spirit in which many nuances can be discerned. As Nagg’s wife Nell, the legendary Charlotte Rae (Mrs. Peachum in the off-Broadway-creating Threepenny Opera at the Village’s Theatre de Lys) brings a blissful incomprehension to the part to which I imagine our treasured Anne Gee Byrd (who alternates performances) would bring her own style, despite being rather young for the part.
Beckett’s quartet of archetypes require just a soupcon of individuality to blend their instruments into his chamber music, and these charismatic performers can generate meaningful heat in muted mode.
For while Beckett may not be adverse to pleasing his audience, he concedes nothing of his philosophical austerity in doing so. There is no hope to be found in the experience, notwithstanding Clov’s apparent escape, but even in the most extreme wretchedness, nevertheless, there remains life, of a sort, that we can grasp or reject, or do both at once. In chess, endgame often results in a draw. Existence does not.
That candle was meant to burn for 24 hours of remembrance, but it hung on stubbornly for more than 27. I’d complain, but who you gonna call?
Not I, at the Broad
Here in Los Angeles we have been treated to a bounty of brilliant Beckett in just a few short years (recall, too, the Brooke Adams Happy Days at Boston Court, and John Hurt’s Krapp’s Last Tape, also at the Douglas). Notfilm, Ross Lipman’s superb documentary feature on the making of Beckett’s only movie (called Film), starring Buster Keaton in his last significant work, played extensively earlier this spring and proferred hitherto unknown insights into his creative process through Barney Rosset’s surreptious recordings. (Beckett failed, but he went on to fail better, moving his efforts to video realizations of his works.)
And in early April, the Broad Stage presented Irish actor Lisa Dwan in her brief evening of a trilogy of late pieces, most intensely in the blistering genius of Not I (1972). This was a breakneck monologue performed in utter darkness by only the illuminated mouth of a crazed Irishwoman, a role originated by Jessica Tandy at Lincoln Center but dominatingly owned by Billie Whitelaw, who perfected the beyond-challenging part under Beckett’s extended tutelage and remains immortalized in a television rendition from the mid-1970s (though not broadcast by the BBC until 1991).
Dwan is much younger than most previous players who dared to embody this arduous sprint, but the blackout effectively renders this moot, and the physical stamina makes a crucial difference, as she spews the vituperative verbal diarrhea in barely over nine minutes, a considerable lapping of the previous Olympic records of 12 to 13. It amplifies the shock value to the point of ear-busting near incomprehensibility, as intended. Having first performed the diatribe in 2005, she benefitted from the mentorship of Whitelaw in her final days and has toured to international acclaim with it, though she has announced, to no little empathy, that this current series of shows will be her last.
Beckett’s text provides for an Auditor, barely visible, who reacts minimally to the invective, but he grew to consider that presence dispensible. As best as I could tell, he wasn’t there.
Though Not I was meant entirely as a stand-alone set-piece, Dwan obtained permission to perform as a three-part evening Footfalls (1975) and Rockaby (1981), both of which were originally Whitelaw creations, though never attempted sequentially. Moreover, Footfalls requires the use of a offstage (or taped) voice of the onstage wraith’s mother, and Dwan also received approval to do both characters. Whatever annihilating devastation was wrought on the audience by the scorched-earth Not I was bracingly ameliorated by the theatrical quick-change of Dwan from blackface to a gossamerly nightgowned, frail and pale unhinged woman, in the classic Beckett quandary of being mentally entombed in the womb from which she has yet successfully to emerge. It’s like Tennessee Williams without the comfort of strangers, or indeed any succor of any sort.
Concluding the tryptych, Rockaby is played entirely in a slow rocking chair in which a woman grown old too soon remains immobile, passively listening to a recorded voice (Dwan’s.) She is not whoever or whatever is moving the chair. The Voice recites details of her life and her mother’s with the implication of a lullaby easing a path toward death.
Though the three playlets were not meant to be performed together, they dovetail with a satisfying consistency of thematic material, as well as commanding bravura range from the actor. In an interview after the opening, Dwan displayed considerable analytic depth and wit not only about Beckett but also the sexual politics of theatrical casting. She suggested that for all the unique talent demonstrated that evening, her capabilities extend widely beyond the precious pyrotechnics and strict severities of this older Beckett — without the balm of crowd-pleasing drollery. She’s funny, too.
Is There an Author in the House?
So long as we are considering the work of titantically influential artists, a word or two might be appropriate for A Noise Within’s Six Characters in Search of an Author by Luigi Pirandello (closing this weekend). Certainly the revolutionary concept of creations bestowed with an existence that persists after abandonment by the imagination that conceived them was a seminal idea for 1921 and wholly responsive to the depredations of the late convulsive European war. Despite initial incomprehension, the play actually achieved immediate success on Broadway the following year (the cast included Margaret Wycherly and Dwight Frye as mother and son), and Pirandello won the Nobel Prize in 1934.
On the other hand, in my own experience, I had never seen a production of the work that seemed to be organically satisfying, including the more vernacular Robert Brustein adaptation that is the basis for its current mounting. (I haven’t been too fond of any of Pirandello’s plays for the most part, finding his short fiction superior: his best dramatic rendition for my money has been the Taviani Brothers’ three-part film Kaos (1984).)
To A Noise Within’s credit, it brushes up Brustein with a lot of contemporary and local theatrical references that considerably enliven the schematic-prone conceit and gins up the backstage rehearsal authenticity with a lot of inside-baseball insight. There’s still a desultory, stilted edge to the material, but ANW excels at tackling classics authentically with some freshness of approach, and if you’ve ever been curious about this critically important work of theater, I’ve never been more persuaded of its intrinsic worth than in this savvy rendition.
Endgame, Kirk Douglas Theatre, 9820 Washington Blvd., Culver City, (213) 628-2772, www.CenterTheatreGroup.org, Tuesdays through Fridays 8 p.m. Saturdays 2 & 8 p.m., Sundays 1 & 6:30 p.m., through May 22. Running time: 80 minutes.
Not I, Footfalls and Rockaby, The Broad Stage, Santa Monica. Running time: 50 minutes. (closed)
Six Characters in Search of an Author, A Noise Within, 3352 East Foothill Blvd., Pasadena, (626) 356-3100, www.anoisewithin.org, Fri., May 13, 8 p.m.; Saturday May 14 at 2 & 8 p.m. Running time: 80 minutes.