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Weekly Alibi Nothing Is Funnier Than Unhappiness

Samuel Beckett's Endgame at the Vortex

By Steven Robert Allen

SEPTEMBER 21, 1998:  During the first part of the performance, a cellular phone started ringing from somewhere at the back of the theater. When the hag who owned it clicked the damned thing on and started chatting in the middle of the play, it was almost enough to justify violence.

Rude disturbances aside, though, Samuel Beckett's 1957 apocalyptic one-act wonder Endgame (Fin de Partie), currently running at the Vortex Theatre, is still an amazing thing to watch. For our pleasure, Beckett constructs a desperate, hopeless landscape on the brink of annihilation. Nothing, not even a good, hard prayer, can save his four pathetic characters from doom and despair. There is no God. There is no happiness. Every day is a bloody awful routine with the same extended farce, the same bickering cruelty, the same all-encompassing selfishness and stupidity.

On stage, windows and doors and alarm clocks float in black space. A couple of old folks live in trash cans. A blind guy in a wheel chair screams endlessly for pain killers that he's never going to get. A humpbacked servant slouches in a 10-foot-by-10-foot-by-10-foot cell, staring at the wall, waiting idiotically for his master to whistle him. Every character is filthy, dim and unlikeable. There is no dignity here.

No one except Beckett could create such a world and make the experience of observing it so enjoyable and stimulating. The play is almost overwhelmingly bleak--probing the failure of the imagination, the drudgery of life, emotional manipulation, callousness, hypocrisy and the terror of death--but it also doles out more than its fair share of laughs. Despite the blackness and pessimism, Beckett somehow manages to keep it all entertaining. As one of the trash bin geezers says, "Nothing is funnier than unhappiness," and Beckett's play, as brought to life by this Vortex crew, proves the theorem with precision.

Paul Ford is surly and intense in the role of Hamm, the blind cripple. The other cast members--Joseph Pesce as the servant boy, Rick Edwards as geezer No. 1 and Angie Torres as geezer No. 2-- also do good jobs in their respective roles. Some clever staging adds nicely to the misery, creepiness and humor of the performance.

It's Beckett's text, though, that is the true star of this show. Like the last moves of a chess match between grand masters, the progression of Endgame attains a kind of elegant inevitability. By the end, when the whimpers die away and white noise floods the theater, the piece resonates as much more than simple black comedy.

Samuel Beckett is never one to season harsh human realities to make them more palatable. He is more likely to ram them raw down our throats. This play has been aptly described by some as "ruthless." It's a judicious description. One can only hope that the cellular witch was paying attention.

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