What’s Beckett Without The Laughs?

When Mel Brooks said, “Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you walk into an open sewer and die,” he probably had the plays of Samuel Beckett in the back of his mind.

These words came flooding back to me last night after I experienced a preview performance of Beckett’s Endgame at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York.

Director Andrei Belgrader’s production features an all-star cast: the movie actor John Turturro as Hamm, The Sopranos regular Max Casella as Clov, revered stage actor Alvin Epstein (who, among other things, originated the role of Lucky in the American premiere of Waiting for Godot) as Nag, and Broadway legend Elaine Stritch as Nell. Even though the production had some vivid moments, it lacked one element crucial to the successful staging of Beckett’s full-length plays: humor.

My heart nearly broke during the poignant exchanges between Nag and Nell. Epstein and Stritch cut such frail figures. They act their parts like sighs. There is also a note of terrible sweetness in their eulogizing about the past.

Casella and Turturro are at their best when angry at each other. Casella’s fury is particularly engrossing. He seems utterly worn down and at the very end of his rope with his life as a reluctant caregiver. Clov’s moments of vengeful mischief against Hamm are similarly powerful. I had always assumed that when Clov tells Hamm “there are no more painkillers” he’s telling the truth. But Casella made me think that he was playing another practical joke on his awful boss. Standing, twisted on stage with a small round jar in his hands and a glint of malice in his eye, Casella suggests that he might be telling a lie.

But — at least in preview — the 75-minute production drags and ultimately fails to help me connect with the tragedy at its heart, probably because Belgrader doesn’t seem all that interested in exploring the play’s vital streak of vaudeville comedy. The last production of Endgame I witnessed, by Cutting Ball in San Francisco, played up the slapstick elements. This made the audience painfully aware of the cosmic joke that underpins human life as viewed through a Beckettian lens. I only cracked a couple of half-hearted smiles at BAM last night, whereas belly laughs were required.

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