Alan Mandell, the evergreen 88-year-old actor, confessed that he might be ready to bid farewell to the stage when I interviewed him last year on the occasion of his performance in the Mark Taper Forum revival of Arthur Miller's "The Price."
Learning lines was becoming more challenging, even though in conversation he was still sharp as a tack. And the psychological toll of giving himself over to a role was beginning to seem daunting to someone who had discovered acting while in grade school.
Thank heavens he postponed any plans for retirement to not only star in but also direct the impeccable production of Samuel Beckett's "Endgame" that opened Sunday at the Kirk Douglas Theatre.
Playing Hamm opposite the Clov of Irish actor Barry McGovern, his distinguished stage partner in the 2012 Taper production of "Waiting for Godot," Mandell redeems an adult lifetime of Beckettian experience in this "Endgame." It's the best rendering of the play I've encountered, and having seen it done to perfection, I feel as though I can retire this modern classic from my theatergoing list, though like Mandell I'm wobbly when it comes to saying goodbye to enduring pleasures.
Mandell developed a professional and personal association with Beckett through his work with the San Quentin Drama Workshop and the actor Rick Cluchey, who would have been in this production had he not died late last year. The clarity of Mandell's staging lends this revival the feeling of an homage to the Nobel Prize-winning Irish playwright, one that the spotlight-averse author would have no doubt appreciated.
Which is to say this is a scrupulously faithful production of "Endgame." Beckett insisted that his plays be performed as written. He didn't like it when directors wanted to impose their concepts on his works. His stage directions weren't merely suggestions — the settings and stage choreography were as intrinsic to the meticulously crafted theatrical vision as the compressed dialogue.
Mandell brings more than just respect for the text. He brings a musical awareness of the language and a tonal assurance that can shift on a dime from mordant irony to delicate feeling.
The stark set by John Iacovelli, handsomely lighted by Jared A. Sayeg, could be a forbidding room in a Medieval castle, but looked at from another vantage it could be the prison of a skull, the trapped consciousness of bewildered man.
It's a scenic backdrop ripe for theatrical metaphor. This is a drama that communicates meaning less through traditional plot than through the interaction of sharply sculpted phrases and carefully coordinated images. Drama is stripped to its essence, and what remains is concentrated poetry aimed squarely at our existential quandary.
Weak readers of Beckett harp on the theme of Godless despair. Depressive graduate students, loaded with debt and fretful about diminished job prospects, fasten on to the futility running through the plays.
But "Endgame" isn't breaking news about the meaninglessness of existence. Like all of Beckett's output regardless of the literary form, the subject is the way human beings fill up the void, the games we play to pass the time, the stories we tell ourselves while making our passage from crib to grave.
Beckett couldn't abide academic interpretations of his work. He preferred his plays to speak directly to those willing to listen without the need for reductive rationales. But in a dialogue on modern art with art historian Georges Duthuit, Beckett articulated his view of the paradoxical function of art in a world still smoldering after World War II: "The expression that there is nothing to express, nothing with which to express, nothing from which to express, no power to express, no desire to express, together with the obligation to express."
These words are especially germane to "Endgame," a play whose title evokes a chess match, one involving two amateur players who are playing not to win but merely to postpone inevitable defeat. The characters know full well that in the post-apocalyptic world they inhabit, nothing they do will have any effect, but stillness and silence aren't an option while they still draw breath.
Mandell's Hamm, blind and crippled, sits in a wheelchair like a burlesque King Lear. He barks orders at his limping, resentful servant, Clov, whom McGovern portrays in a manner that has a faint air of Monty Python but is nevertheless Beckettian through and through.
Two garbage cans occupy the stage. They contain Hamm's legless parents, Nagg (James Greene) and Nell (Charlotte Rae performed the role on opening night, though Anne Gee Byrd will have the honors at select performances). All of the figures are endowed by costume designer Maggie Morgan with a painterly grandeur.
What follows is a ritual of leave-taking. Clov goes through the motions of his daily routine, readying the helpless, suffering, humorously disagreeable characters for a new day, one he hopes that will end with his departure from this indentured servitude, even though it will mean certain death for everyone, so mutually dependent have they all become.
Hamm believes he's running this show. "Me — to play" are his first words, and he tries his bullying best to make theatrical sport out of the affliction that is his life.
Shakespeare famously compared the world to a stage, returning again and again to the metaphor of life as an ephemeral pageant. For Beckett, this notion isn't so much a theme but a springboard. "Endgame" is born out of the comparison between reality and the theater — two shams, the latter perhaps a shade more honest than the former.
Hamm, whose biblical name does double duty for a character who conducts himself like a ham actor, speaks of auditions, asides and soliloquies. When Clov asks, "What is there to keep me here?," Hamm replies in a vaudevillian deadpan, "The dialogue."
Mandell and McGovern play off each other naturally, never overdoing the pathos or shortchanging the comedy. Their voices are so harmonious that at several points I had the impression of two master violinists lifting each other to sublime heights without being aware of anything but the music.
Greene, capturing the second childhood sweetness and mischievousness of Nagg, and Rae, making the most of Nell's senescent sensuality, are as touching as they are hilarious as Hamm's bottled up progenitors. "Nothing is funnier than unhappiness," Rae's Nell contends, and the truth of this sentiment is confirmed in all its risible melancholy in this majestically wrought revival.
McNulty is The Times' staff theater critic.
Where: Kirk Douglas Theatre, 9820 Washington Blvd., Culver City
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sundays. (Call for exceptions.) Ends May 22.
Tickets: $25 to $55 (subject to change)
Info: (213) 628 – 2772 or www.centertheatregroup.org