Classic Beckett 'comedy' on time and mortality impressively revived.
Endgame Play by Samuel Beckett. Directed by Alvin Epstein. Since early last season, 42nd Street's Theatre Row has been turning and returning to the work of Samuel Beckett. First came the world premiere of ''The Beckett Plays.'' It was followed by ''Rockaby,'' starring Billie Whitelaw. Both of these remarkable productions were staged by the late Alan Schneider, a major American director and Beckett specialist.
Theatre Row's latest salute to Beckett is an impressive revival of ''Endgame'' - dedicated appropriately to Mr. Schneider - at the newly named Samuel Beckett Theatre. Considered an avant-garde enigma when it was first produced in London in 1957, ''Endgame'' is one of those Beckett plays about time and mortality that have become classics of the contemporary world theater.
Like ''Waiting for Godot,'' which was also written in 1955, ''Endgame'' treats in bleakly comic fashion an interdependent master-slave relationship. Their bond is intolerable, but their separation would be fatal to both. The blind, bullying Pozzo and the whiplashed, finally exploding Lucky of ''Waiting for Godot'' are subordinate characters. With ''Endgame,'' the relationship becomes central in the persons of the sightless, chair-ridden Hamm and the slavelike Clov, who has long since come to loathe the tyrant he serves.
The prodution at the Samuel Beckett Theatre takes a firm hold on the antithetical elements of the austere comedy. As the pain-racked despot, Alvin Epstein grasps the anguish underlying Hamm's egotism and lack of compassion. The glimpses occur in Hamm's rambling account of his long-ago interview with Clov's importunate father as well as in such passing phrases as his reference to ''all those I might have helped.'' Yet Hamm's miserable parents, Nagg (James Greene) and Nell (Alice Drummond), are confined to dustbins (which could be taken as a brutal metaphor for the warehousing of the elderly).
In characteristic fashion, Beckett amuses himself and the spectator with byplays and wordplays. There are the clownish turns and vaudeville bits as Clov struggles ineptly to coordinate his efforts with a ladder and a telescope or attempts ''to create a little order.'' There is a touch of Shakespeare as Hamm quotes Prospero: ''Our revels now are ended.'' And there are the Beckett-type theatrical jokes. ''What is there to keep me here?'' asks Clov. ''The dialogue, '' replies Hamm.
The performance staged by Mr. Epstein (the Clov of the 1958 Cherry Lane Theatre production) serves the play with integrity and intelligent theatricality. Speaking in wearied tones and laughing a spectral laugh, a white-faced Peter Evans drags Clov's stooped body about the stage as the slave responds to Hamm's imperiously whistled summonings. Clov is bound to the blind tyrant by a servitude that cannot - until all is said and done - be escaped. If Mr. Epstein seems at times to rely almost too much on strident shouting, his Hamm nevertheless proves the almost hypnotic control exercised by blind power.
The action is encased in the confining off-white walls of designer Avigdor Arikha's claustrophobic setting. Jennifer Tipton's lighting is subdued but intense.