By Wendy Rosenfield
For the Inquirer
The Arden Theatre’s current production of Endgame marks the first time this company--usually squarely in the province of narrative-driven plays and musicals--has taken on absurdist Samuel Beckett. So it’s perhaps not all that surprising that director Edward Sobel attempts to impose a sort of contemporary narrative on Beckett’s timeless apocalyptic vision; not surprising, but disappointing.
In 1984, American Repertory Theater was famously made to add an insert to its Endgame program registering the playwright’s disgust at director JoAnne Akalaitis’ subway setting, incidental music and interracial casting. This last element, he explained, added unintentional sociopolitical overtones. It’s also the key element in any argument for or against following Beckett’s very specific stage directions to the letter.
Beckett’s intention (bare room, two windows) was a lack of specificity, a stark depiction of the human condition. Sobel’s intention, or at least the result, is utter specificity, a depiction of these humans’ specific condition.
The bare room is instead the subterranean clearing between a collapsed overpass complete with dangling automobile, and a subway stop, its windows an air duct and a hole punched through the cement overhead. Designed by Kevin Depinet, it’s an arresting image, but again, pretty darn specific. Rather than a bloody handkerchief covering the face of Scott Greer’s Hamm, it’s a newspaper (also an obvious message in that choice), and Dan Kern and Nancy Boykin’s trashcan-bound Nagg and Nell wear midcentury middle-class dress covered in a layer of dust and debris--a robin’s egg blue suit and pillbox cap for Boykin, suspenders, a newsboy cap and plaid shirt for Kern. Beckett (and his dialogue), however, called for Hamm’s parents to be infantilized, clad in bonnets, crying for “Me pap!”
And yes, James Ijames’ Clov, here, the Chaplinesque, jumpsuit-clad servant to Hamm’s master, is African-American. So, does Hamm and Clov’s racial dynamic matter? Of course it does, particularly since Sobel chooses to end the play with the departing Clov clad not in a Panama hat and tweed coat as Beckett instructed, but rather a Kufi-style skullcap and tan tunic. Make of that what you will.
Despite Beckett’s objections, when Akalaitis’ production premiered, reviewers believed her liberties didn’t affect his message. This time, this reviewer believes the playwright was ill-served. Greer and Ijames are ringers, and it’s no small pleasure to watch them interact; Greer in particular, forceful and august, might well be the inspiration behind the Arden’s interest in this play. But Sobel chooses a grim route that belies Nell’s declaration, “Nothing is funnier than unhappiness.” There’s not much to laugh at here, but plenty to puzzle over.
Playing at: Arden Theatre, Arcadia Stage, 40 N. 2nd St. Through Sun., Mar. 10. Tickets: $36 to $48. Information: 215-922-1122 or www.ArdenTheatre.org