When the performance begins, three people—two women (Rene Augesen and Annie Purcell) and one man (Anthony Fusco) in the middle—are on stage in a row, facing the audience, and they are each completely submerged, except for their heads, in a large urn. The only thing that’s visible is their faces, and only one at a time, when the single spotlight illuminates the speaking character. Such are Samuel Beckett’s stage directions for the opening short play, “Play.” These three form a strange love triangle—the man, his wife and his mistress—in which the two women complain angrily of the man’s infidelity to them whilst the man dreams of another woman altogether.
What follows is an exercise in exquisite voice work: It’s like radio with heads but completely engaging. As the three characters each recount the story of their love triangle directly to the audience, there are genuinely funny moments, such as, when describing the awkward tea meeting between the two women, the man says “Personally, I always preferred Lipton’s.” Once the story is complete, it repeats verbatim.
The second run of the story is spoken even more quickly than the first, which was already at an unnaturally clipped pace. It forces the viewer to question just how many times they have already repeated these exact words and why they continue to do so. The second time through, it is so fast that the words start to lose their meaning: They become a series of inflected sounds, formed in a familiar pattern and pitch.
“Play” is a piece that relies entirely on timing; the spotlight moves from one actor to another so that the spotlight shines on the speaking actor. If the actor is too slow or too quick to start the speech once the spotlight has moved, the comedy can be lost. The pacing is nearly flawless, and I expect that the few minor hiccups present on opening night will have long been ironed out by now.
After a brief intermission, the performance picks up again with a second Beckett play, “Endgame.” The action takes place in a single airy room, where the blind, self-centered and demanding Hamm is confined to his chair, unable to get up, and his crippled servant Clov limps about the stage, unable to sit down if he wanted to. Like “Waiting for Godot,” it’s a play that is very much about time passing, people being paralyzed and waiting for something to change: Hamm is an invalid awaiting death and dreading the day when Clov leaves him, which seems inevitable. Hamm uses and abuses Clov, and yet he has stayed, for years—perhaps, as Hamm suggests, “for the dialogue!”
The two spar verbally—the old curmudgeon and his deformed servant—both seemingly miserable but unable to change their situation: awaiting the end of the world, or perhaps, just the end of their lives. In the middle of the play, Hamm’s parents (Barbara Oliver and Giles Havergal) pop up, each housed in a garbage can, to share stories that neither can hear nor listen to. Yet despite the absurdity of where they live, the interaction between the parents is genuinely real: They have that ease with one another which can only come with years of companionship. Their bodies are deteriorating and so is their interest in one another, despite the tenderness displayed. Their interaction is one of the key highlights of this production.
Bill Irwin, the great comic actor and clown, plays the self-centered Hamm, and it’s remarkable what he does with so many constraints: We can’t see his eyes, and his body is immobile, two key tools for an actor. But with his voice, his hands and the rest of his face, he is able to speak volumes about his character and his feelings. It’s easy to forget just how constrained the performance is because his Hamm behaves perfectly naturally and fully communicates his emotions, however childish they may be. Nick Gabriel as Clov is not in the same league as Bill Irwin: He is too young for the part and, despite some good physical work to show his deformities, he lacks the world-weariness that the part requires. Many of his lines also come off as over-acting, losing the comedy where laughs should be had.
It’s a solid production of “Endgame,” but Clov and Hamm don’t quite have enough chemistry, which makes this 90-minute play seem long, though that’s not too uncommon for Beckett. Some scenes drag, and those scenes, which just aren’t as good as the rest, make the play feel choppily paced in ways not intended by the script. Bill Irwin has set the bar so high with his performance that, though the rest of the production is adequate, it’s not remarkable except in Irwin’s best scene-stealing moments.