Steppenwolf’s Game plays with sadness

Apathy and cynical humor take center stage in Beckett’s tragicomedy

By Jonathan Grabinsky

Human nature is pathetically absurd. In Samuel Beckett’s Endgame, one of his most popular tragicomedies, the playwright explores this outlook as he examines the fragile, yet comical, nature of mortality in human relationships. The production of the play at The Steppenwolf Theatre, under the direction of Frank Galati, is a faithful and courageous depiction of Beckett’s masterpiece.

The play follows the relationship between Hamm, an irritated old man unable to stand, Clov, his reluctant yet obedient servant who is unable to sit, and his parents, Neil and Nagg, who lost their legs in a bicycle accident and are now constrained to lives inside ashbins. In this one-act play, Hamm is constrained to a chair from where he abuses his servant’s good nature by making him perform customary, frivolous, and ultimately annoying tasks. Similarly, he treats his parents like dogs and forces them to occasionally emerge from their ashbins only to listen to his life stories.

The acting is immaculate. Beckett’s text, packed with repetitions, silences, and “trivial dialogue,” of sorts, could be easily butchered by bad timing—but the timing of the actors is beautiful. Ian Barford as Clov very honestly portrays the anxiety and frustration of being unable to break the chains that make him dependent on his master. Likewise, William Petersen as Hamm is also superb in representing the old, blind master who attempts to make up for the lack of control he feels in delaying death by giving his life a “false, kingly empowerment.” Martha Lavey and Francis Guinan as Hamm’s leg-less parents are also quite remarkable. With a cynical, dark, and witty British interpretation reminiscent of a Monthy Python sketch, their acting is nevertheless sincere in portraying the humor behind man’s miserable state of being. Their comical yet sad representation could perhaps be summarized in one of Nagg’s lines: “Nothing is funnier than unhappiness.”

Aesthetically, the production is magnificent. The tall, pale, prison-like walls of the room, combined with the dusty old furniture and worn-out clothes, give the stage a sense of hopelessness and abandonment. “Everything is gray,” says Clov at one point. Artistic director Martha Lavey does justice to the apathetic grayness of human nature as portrayed in the text by reflecting it visually on stage.

Endgame explores the comic and poignant emptiness of the human condition and the unbearable reality of the human life as it is pestered with mortality and enslaved by routine, apathy, and dreariness. The production fulfills the ultimate intention of theater: It provides a frank and aching account of human life. Jean-Paul Sartre once suggested that art was one of the means of providing meaning to a meaningless world. In an intimate creation, Frank Galati does precisely this: He leaves us with a glimpse of color in a gray world.