Stasis is never more watchable when it is in the hands of Samuel Beckett.
One of the most unique and daring playwrights of the 20th century, Beckett’s work is perhaps best characterized from his line, "Nothing is funnier than unhappiness."
That line comes from his 1957 masterpiece "Endgame," which opened at the Arden Theatre in a transfixing production on Wednesday. Anchored by Scott Greer and James Ijames, Ed Sobel’s production borders on the hypnotic.
But what exactly is the play about? That’s harder to say. Hamm (Greer), blind and bound to a wheelchair, does nothing but bother his servant Clov (Ijames) and beg for painkillers. Next to him, his parents Nagg and Nell (Dan Kern and Nancy Boykin, both excellent) live in trashcans, popping out when hungry.
The title refers to the end of a chess game, and indeed, this is a game with very few players. With no one to talk to but each other, and seemingly no love between any of them, they do what Beckett’s characters do best: Wait for the inevitable.
As theorized, does Hamm refer to a hammer? Are Clov, Nagg and Nell all references to nails? Interpretations of the text are endless.
Sobel literalizes the world of the play by setting it underneath a crumbling bridge in what seems to be a dystopian future.
Purists may criticize this interpretation of Beckett’s text. Yes, his stage directions -- always very precise -- called for a bare room with two windows.
However, despite perhaps going against the playwright’s wishes, it is a winning production, simultaneously humorous and heartbreaking.
Greer’s Hamm is a despicable creature, lacking remorse or dignity. However, his magnetism and command makes him infinitely watchable. This is a man who perhaps once had power or greatness, and is now reduced to dictating the only three people he sees.
Where Hamm is all words and no motion, Ijames’ Clov is a physical wonder. With a stiff-legged walk that never wears out his welcome, he bounds up and slides down ladders, and performs a myriad of duties with an humorously efficient despondency.
As the legless parents, Kern and Boykin are a treat. More than a curmudgeon, Kern seems on the verge of breaking down into tears, and in fact, when we are later told that he is crying off-stage, it is not surprised.
Boykin, on the other hand, seems cheerier, not too far removed from Winnie in Beckett’s "Happy Days." Her disposition makes her twist near the end of the play all the more sudden and heartbreaking.
Kevin Depinet’s vivid set is well-balanced with Thom Weaver’s austere lighting. This may not be a bare room with two windows, but Beckett’s characters seem right at home on this stage.
Director Sobel keeps a quick pace to the dialogue, letting the words spill in a dizzying haze. It may not be the most respectful or the most coherent telling of Beckett, but it is a world that, despite the heartbreak and bleakness, I was sad to see end.
"Endgame" runs through March 10 at the Arden Theatre, 40 North 2nd Street in Philadelphia. For tickets and information, call 215-922-1122 or visit www.ardentheatre.org.