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Regional Reviews: Connecticut & the Berkshires

Long Wharf Theatre
Review by Fred Sokol | Season Schedule

Also see Fred's review of Beautiful: The Carole King Musical and Zander's review of [title of show]

Brian Dennehy and Reg E. Cathey
Photo by T. Charles Erickson
Samuel Beckett's Endgame, continuing at Long Wharf Theatre's Stage II through February 5th, benefits from a staggering, disciplined performance by Brian Dennehy as Hamm. Gordon Edelstein has long wished to direct this play (one which was first produced in London nearly 60 years ago). His interpretation of the script, which has oftentimes been analyzed as either dark or absurdist, yields a presentation addressing life and life cycle.

A man who knew and played chess, Beckett chose his title accordingly. The endgame transpires, on the chessboard, when few pieces remain. The king is still standing. So, too, there are pawns. Throughout Endgame on stage, Hamm, sightless and wearing sunglasses, is confined to a chair; he is unable to rise. He does retain power, ordering his caretaker Clov (Reg E. Cathey), a man whose troubled legs prevent him from sitting, to fetch, to tend, to submit to his requests. Clov, silent as the play begins, finally says "Finished, It's finished." and the verbal performance begins. Clov cannot explain just why he stays with Hamm, a man who is not kind. Yet, if he left Hamm, both men would be desperately lonely, bereft, without one another. The ironic truth is that they are best friends.

The other two characters who, for the most part, rest in large laundry holding type containers which might be located in some hotels, are Nagg (Joe Grifasi) and Nell (Lynn Cohen). Nagg is Hamm's father and Hamm calls to him every so often. Nagg, fairly early on, reaches over to the other dustbin and taps hard on it. He asks Nell to kiss him but each is restricted and they cannot possibly have lips touch. Nagg appears, from time to time, eating a biscuit but Nell's visible moments are few.

Endgame has been construed to be about emptiness, alienation, the bleak landscape which promises the finality of death. Edelstein's take appears to be one which draws focus on a definition of existentialism that zeroes in on humans' lifespans. However futile are their prospects, Hamm, Clov, and, to some measure, Nagg struggle for meaning. This is non-nihilistic. There is no certainty and, perhaps, the future is without light. Hamm is blind but he remains a searcher.

One line said more than once by Hamm is: "Use your head, can't you, use your head, you're on earth, there's no cure for that!" It is at the crux of Beckett's scripting and (referencing another mode), I had many college drama students utter these words as part of an acting exercise. Dennehy, first delivering this, is explosive. It is said by a conscious, commenting human who urges others to consider and to press on—as long they are on earth.

Brian Dennehy's performance is a revelation. Now in his late seventies, a major film and television presence, the actor has received two Tony Awards for his work on stage. This role requires technique, steadfastness, and understanding of purpose. Dennehy's Hamm is vehement and forthright. He is aware of his situation, attempts twice to stand and cannot. He is forever stuck to his seat, able only to be wheeled around. He will never again see the world outside.

Reg E. Cathey (whom some will recall as Norman Wilson on TV's "The Wire" or, more recently, on "House of Cards") plays Clov as a man dedicated and simultaneously if quietly, terrified. He is a servant but, at the least, he has a place and role. If he does depart, that might be apocalyptic. The actor is unwavering and his physical control is paramount.

Edelstein is fully in control of the production. Eugene Lee, the award winning stage and television designer, has chairs stacked at odd angles, from floor to ceiling on either side of the stage. Otherwise, we see two windows and cement flooring and walls. Kaye Voyce's costuming is proactive. For the audience and for the players, Beckett allows no escape. Still, during the beginning sequences, some instances of wry humor seep through. Then, observers are caught within the context of the play: no other choice but to sit and experience. Edelstein neither hurries nor lags but encourages exemplary performance.

Endgame continues at Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, Connecticut through February 5th, 2017. For tickets, call (203) 787-4282 or visit

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