Endgame, Arden Theatre Company
At first glance, Samuel Beckett’s 1957 grim absurdist drama Endgame seemed like an odd fit for the Arden, which usually leans toward more upbeat and accessible mainstream fare. The theater’s publicity mailers for the show — which played up that Beckett, in addition to writing Waiting for Godot and being generally acknowledged as the master of modern absurdism, also “worked for James Joyce” and “drove Andre the Giant to school” — seemed to confirm that the Arden shared my concerns.
Director Edward Sobel tries to bridge the gap by casting two of Philadelphia’s most likable actors, Scott Greer and James Ijames, in the lead roles: blind, chairbound Hamm and his loyal servant, Clov, who can’t sit down. Together, the three wring much humor from a script that revels in the minutiae of bleak survival (itches, cravings, memories), treating Beckett’s language — too often revered as sacred text and played with gravitas — as conversation between characters.
Kevin Depinet’s scenic design likewise makes the play more specific and clear, drawing on elements from the post-disaster ouevre that’s become so popular, from The Walking Dead and the whole zombie craze to Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. He interprets Beckett’s “bare interior” as a post-apocalyptic parking garage where Hamm holds court in a makeshift wheelchair under a collapsed ramp, a nose-down car crashed behind him. Hamm’s parents, played by Dan Kern and Nancy Boykin, subsist in chemical drums rather than “ash bins.” Millie Hiibel’s tattered costumes, Thom Weaver’s suitably bleary lighting, and the eerie echoes in Daniel Perelstein’s sound likewise put us in familiar territory.
Beckett would no doubt have responded to this by siccing lawyers on Sobel and company if he hadn’t died in 1989 — the playwright was notoriously prickly about directors’ “interpretations” of his work. But serving the play, as a director should, does not always mean duplicating the playwright’s stage directions. Purists will argue that a production like this goes against Beckett’s wish that audience members interpret events their own way, without the director’s assistance.
But do Arden audiences returning (the theater hopes) for A Raisin in the Sun and A Little Night Music care about Beckett’s outside-the-dialogue instructions, or do they prefer a production that offers some definition and grounding? The Arden’s answer works for them: Purists, beware.
Sobel presents an Endgame that artfully — with heart and, yes, humor — reveals four characters waiting for their world to end. That the director doesn’t genuflect to the great playwright isn’t the end of the world.
Through March 10, $15-$48, Arden Theatre, 40 N. Second St., 215-922-1122, ardentheatre.org.