We'll begin by admitting something that will likely color the tone of this review, and should affect how seriously you want to take our opinion: We love Samuel Beckett. The late, great playwright and novelist, who was Irish and an early disciple of James Joyce but wrote his plays primarily in French, was a brilliant writer capable of stripping down modern dystopia and human frailty to its most basic, primal, absurd elements, and still manage to be funny about it. And A.C.T.'s latest production of a pair of Beckett one-acts, the short but potent Play (1963) and the famously bleak Endgame (1957), are both well executed revivals of some of the man's finest work.
Play, which is performed as the introductory act in this production, is a quick twenty-five minutes long and features three characters who are trapped up to their necks, side-by-side, in tall, ceramic urns. It's a familiar trope of Beckett's the person imprisoned on stage, like the hopelessly optimistic Winnie buried up to her neck in the dirt in the second act of Happy Days, and the parents Nagg and Nell residing in trash cans in Endgame. But Play provides us the tightest, most linguistically symphonic variation on the theme, with three characters speaking singly and together, replaying their entire script twice through as if they were a string trio playing a chamber piece. The staccato notes of the two women and their shared man, one a wife and one a mistress, recounting how they negotiated their love triangle and variously failed to love each other, is funny and impressively fast the first time you hear it. A follow-spot darts between each of their faces, their words just shy of overlapping each other, and it's a pretty wonderful thing to see. They are just the heads of actors, trying to be as expressive as they can be while remembering and delivering rapid-fire dialogue, and yes, this is where performance art was born. During their second time through the same text, you're able to listen better. The funny lines aren't quite so funny, but the tragedy of it all, the melancholy of these three people is in sharper relief, and simple lines like, "I can't," and, "Such fantasies," take on greater and complex meaning. The performances by company members René Augusen and Anthony Fusco, along with Broadway actress Annie Purcell, are all great, if simple, but man do they know those lines. It's nothing if not a technical feat.
Then we have the main event, Endgame, set in a single room to Beckett's exacting stage description, with two windows set high on the two back walls, and a blind and paralyzed man, Hamm (played with terrific force, urgency, and tenderness by Bill Irwin), sitting on a throne-like chair with wheels in the center of the room. Hamm's parents, Nagg and Nell (played with humor and effortless pathos by veteran performers Giles Havergal and Barbara Oliver), appear only briefly from within two trash cans set on one side of the stage. Attending to Hamm's every need and whim is the semi-crippled Clov, played here by the abundantly talented Nick Gabriel, who not only stands up to Irwin's presence on the stage, but commands the audience's attention and affection at every phrase. This is a tough play, one of those things that could be deadly boring and effete in the wrong hands, but in the voices of these four actors we're carried up and out of the confines of the script, and there are lots of laughs amidst the sadness.
"Something is taking its course," says Clov at one point, and Hamm repeats him, but all that takes its course on stage is the long, terrible process of watching someone inch closer to death. Hamm rages against it, "says no to nothingness" as Beckett once told some actors, and therein lies the only real drama here.
Beckett insisted he had no great existential agenda with this play, but it's hard not to want to analyze it. It's bleak, no doubt. It presents a home being held together by a pained servant in a barely sketched post-apocalypse, but mostly it is a domestic drama about caring for an invalid and trying to make sense of the past. Having reduced the action to such simple things, Beckett manages to lift the drama to the level of parable, and it remains as ever a compelling text to listen to, and laugh at, and parse.
Endgame and Play are playing through June 3. Get tickets here.