Play’s the Thing

The announcement late last year that American Conservatory Theater would be staging Samuel Beckett’s Endgame and Play this season in lieu of the previously scheduled Twelfth Night was great news on several counts: It would feature the return of world-class physical comic Bill Irwin to the ACT stage, it would be another always-welcome opportunity to savor the challenging texts of the modernist pioneer, and after artistic director Carey Perloff’s lackluster productions of William Shakespeare’s The Tempest and John Ford’s ’Tis Pity She’s a Whore I hadn’t been looking forward to her staging of Shakespeare’s popular comedy.

Bill Irwin and Nick Gabriel in Endgame. Photo by Kevin Berne.

This Beckett double bill is also directed by Perloff, who also did a 2004 staging of Waiting for Godot that seemed overly concerned with making any subtext as transparent as possible. (ACT’s done Endgame before as well, but not since the 1960s.) The surprise here is that the 25-minute piece that serves as an appetizer, the little-known Play featuring members of ACT’s core acting company, is the real treat of the evening, while the 85-minute main course is hardly worth staying for.

Play takes place on a dark stage, where Annie Purcell, Anthony Fusco and René Augesen are enclosed up to their necks in urns that look like giant beehives. The urns are side-by-side, but the three people in them look straight ahead over the audience and appear to be unaware of each other.  Indeed, later in the play they speculate about what has become of each other, and each believes herself or himself to be all alone.

Their faces are ghostly pale, seemingly fixed in an expression of passive distress, and their hair near-identically short, dark and spiky. A small spotlight, almost like a very bright flashlight, shines on the face of one at a time, then moves to another face. (The lighting design is by Alexander V. Nichols.) The light instantly triggers a fast and unceasing torrent of words from each face that halts immediately when the light passes to the next face.

Annie Purcell, Anthony Fusco and René Augesen in Play. Photo by Kevin Berne.

The three all talk very much like each other—they have more or less the same “voice” as characters—so at first it’s hard to tell if they’re telling the same story from the same perspective or (as is actually and clearly the case when the play’s read on the page) from three different points of view.

As much as I enjoyed Play, it was hard to catch enough of what the actors were saying to understand what it was about, just to enjoy clever turns of phrase as they sped by. At least one line that got a laugh on opening night was funny largely because it was not understood: “She put a bloodhound on me, but I had a little chat with him. He as glad of the extra money.” As it flashes past, it seems hilariously absurd—a little less so when you realize that he’s just using slang for a private detective, not bribing an actual dog. Even so, there are plenty of absurd delights to be had in the text; just before that, the same character says, “So I took her in my arms and swore that I could not live without her. I meant it, what is more. Yes, I am sure I did. She did not repulse me.”

Reading the play afterward, I was surprised to find it was a quite comprehensible tale of a love triangle between a cheating husband, his jealous wife and his equally jealous lover. They relate a cat-and-mouse game of evasions and confrontations, but their here and now seems to be a bothersome but not quite unbearable afterlife—either purgatory or some minor circle of hell. It could be worse, they remind themselves without quite saying what it’s like now, and they wonder what the others are doing and if they’re happy. The entire play repeats once, implying a neverending cycle, and if anything the second time around feels subtly more frantic than the first. It’s a curious and sometimes perplexing piece, but the sheer verbal onslaught of it is dazzling, and the cast executes it superbly.

Bill Irwin has been a favorite performer of mine since his days early days in the Pickle Family Circus. His Tony Award-winning dramatic performance opposite Kathleen Turner in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, which SHN brought to San Francisco in 2007, was a master class in how to construct a character physically, his posture speaking as eloquently as the way he delivered his cutting remarks. His own adaptation of Molière’s Scapin at ACT two years ago was likewise a marvelous showcase for his deft comic mastery, both in physical slapstick and impish wisecracks. No matter how many things I’ve seen him in over the years, both on stage and screen, this Endgame may be the first time I’ve seen him give a tedious performance.

It’s not that Irwin doesn’t know Beckett—he performed the author’s Texts for Nothing at ACT in 2000 and has played both Vladimir and Lucky in Godot in New York. Rather, it’s a pervasive problem with the tone of Perloff’s staging of the piece.

In Endgame, the blind, chairbound master Hamm and the painfully stiff-legged servant Clov are sick of each other, sick of their pain and infirmity, and sick of the unending routine of their days, but they have no choice but to continue. Outside of the walls of their little house the world has ended, and yet they survive—painfully, unhappily, relentlessly, resentfully. Hamm’s parents live in twin dustbins in the corner of the room that Hamm never leaves. Clov, the only ambulatory member of the household, at least has the option of retreating to his tiny kitchen. (If nothing else, this pairing of plays illustrates that Beckett really had a thing about encasing actors up to waists, shoulders or heads—Happy Days being another notable example.)

At first blush it seems odd to have a master of physical comedy play a character who can’t leave his chair, and the surprise is that it’s just as unfortunate a casting choice as it sounds. Irwin does some fine expressive speaking with his hands, but his Hamm isn’t just hammy—a certain flair for the overdramatic is certainly part of the character’s makeup—but just plain whiny, falling frequently into goofy voices that serve only to distance him from the viewer. New core company member Nick Gabriel does some very funny silent work at the very beginning, stumbling around with a ladder while trying not to wake Hamm with any noise, but the spell is broken when he speaks. His Clov is very straightforward, all his exasperation right on the surface, in a way that makes his rueful connection to Hamm seem oddly prosaic.

Daniel Ostling’s bleak set sets the scene nicely, with towering gray walls punctuated only by two windows just barely too high to look through without a ladder. Costumer Candice Donnelly gives Hamm an old but bright red robe, with Clov in drab servant’s garb.

The highlight of this Endgame is the character most seldom seen, Aurora Theater Company founding artistic director Barbara Oliver as Hamm’s mother, Nell. Giles Havergal has handsomely round, actorly tones as father Nagg, but he hews to the broad and overstated tone of Perloff’s staging, which makes the piece both less funny and less emotionally and intellectually involving than it is when played with more reserve. (Happily, the Gate Theatre of Dublin gave a far more effective production of Endgame at UC Berkeley last year, courtesy of Cal Performances.) Oliver’s dotty Nell, on the other hand, is hilariously understated, and when she matter-of-factly states, “Nothing is funnier than unhappiness, I grant you that,” she makes you believe it even when all around her seems striving to prove otherwise.

The pervasive lack of nuance makes it hard to give a damn about Hamm and Clov’s desperate frustration with the tedious routine of their days, but instead transfers their impatience to the audience itself. When Hamm says, “Do you not think this has gone on long enough?” it’s hard not to respond, “Dear Godot, yes.”

Endgame and Play
Through June 3
American Conservatory Theater
415 Geary St.
San Francisco, CA

Show #46 of 2012, attended May 16.

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