Rooks and Pawns

'Endgame' plays at the chess-game swindle that is life.

The best part of a Samuel Beckett play is when it's over, you've staggered out of the theater, yawned, stretched and started to argue about what Beckett was trying to say.

The worst part is sitting through the play itself. Beckett built stretches of tedium into all his works--not the empty silences and banal, repetitive actions, which can be quite hypnotizing, but the long soliloquies that collapse like some drunken transient just around the corner of comprehension. Of course, Beckett was preoccupied with our failure to communicate and the near impossibility of finding meaning in our dreary existence, but it's a pity he chose to illustrate his themes with such fidelity.

So if you become restless during the current run of Beckett's Endgame at Zuzi's Little Theatre, it will not be the fault of the imperfect but effective production by the company Twilights Last Gleaming. Your response will depend entirely on how receptive you are to Beckett's desolate concept of absurdist theater.

Set in the shambles of what may be a private bunker near a dead sea, the time and place somewhere on the brink of oblivion, Endgame depicts two hours in the cycle of futility suffered by the overbearing Hamm--a cripple physically, emotionally and morally--and his servant Clov, who shuffles through his meaningless tasks with a mixture of obedience and contempt suggesting faded love. Nearby, periodically emerging from garbage bins, are Hamm's parents, the babbling Nagg and the wistful Nell.

The time of day, as reported by Clov, is perpetually "zero." The view of land and sea afforded by two grimy windows likewise amounts to "zero ... zero ... zero." Literalists around the time of the play's premiere in the late 1950s speculated that these were isolated survivors of a nuclear apocalypse. The only sure thing is that they are human detritus littering the end of existence.

"Endgame" is the final stage of a chess match, in which all the moves are predictable, the outcome certain. In chess the king is basically impotent, and in that respect Hamm is the king of this little game. At least one literary critic with too much time on his hands has observed that Hamm may be short for "hammer," and the other characters' names derive from Latin, German and Italian words for "nail." Hamm does exert a considerable force over his servant and parents, quite a mysterious force considering that he is a blind paraplegic. But it's unlikely that it's Hamm who has beaten them down.

Clov, for example, seems to be cheering on the imminent end of the world, which will release them all from their dreary, monotonous, painful existence. He's quite capable of fooling his master; with his pungent smell, he is clearly the clove pricking the side of Hamm. And even though Clov's own legs and eyes are failing, he is preparing to abandon Hamm and venture alone into the nothingness--even though, as Hamm points out, outside "is the other hell."

Endgame is also full of self-reflexive parody. Hamm (a role for the quintessential hammy actor) is given to such pronouncements as "This is deadly; will this never end?" The audience may be thinking the same thing. And at one point Clov peers into the auditorium with a spyglass and says, "I see a multitude in transports of joy." Then, looking in astonishment at the spyglass, he blurts out, "That's what I call a magnifier."

"Nothing is funnier than unhappiness," says one of Hamm's parents, and Endgame is a comedy of despair. Yet in this production Clov, as played by Chris Kemler and directed by Richard Hatter, is almost a figure of hope. After a discouraging moment of prayer, Hamm declares of God, "The bastard! He doesn't exist." To which Clov replies, smiling, "Not yet."

Is this encouraging or repulsive? Clov's remark implies that Endgame takes place in a distant past, and that the play dredges up the filthy muck out of which our present universe dragged itself. If this is our origin, no wonder we're now in such a depressing mess.

The current production is as lean as can be: no rubble around the set, no shifting lighting effects (not that Beckett calls for any, nor would they be appropriate), no curtain calls. This is fine, but a few details are more questionable.

Nagg and Nell, instead of inhabiting separate garbage cans, are kept in a large box with two lids; it only vaguely resembles a Dumpster, and lessens the characters' dehumanization. Nagg, played by Jack Kingsford, is meant to "gabble" much of the time, but when Kingsford does deliver intelligible lines it's in a pastiche of accents that's unnecessarily disorienting. And Kemler's Clov, who is supposed to have a "stiff, staggering walk," moves about with a fast, stooped shuffle too much like Tim Conway pretending to be a little old man. Back, that is, when he had to pretend.

Otherwise, things come off well. Aside from his walk, Kemler offers a surprisingly varied and nuanced Clov. As Hamm, declaiming in his dirty, tattered finery from his thronelike chair, Dennis Foster manages to be not hateful, but almost sympathetic; some Beckett hard-liners may think this a betrayal, but it works on its own terms. And as Nell, Desirée Toledo can convey indifference, impatience, nostalgia and sadness within the course of maybe two sentences.

"What is there to keep me here?" demands Clov, speaking, perhaps, for the audience. Hamm's wry response: "The dialogue." Beckett would eventually strip even dialogue away from his plays, so that cannot be enough. What keeps us sitting through a play like Endgame, instead, is our need to puzzle out meaning from something absurd, arbitrary, cruel, amusing, enigmatic. That's life.