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Tackling Samuel Beckett's absurdist plays is never an easy assignment, but John Turturro, Max Casella, Alvin Epstein and Elaine Stritch find the humor and pathos in "Endgame," Beckett's 1957 homage to the end of the world.

Indeed, the world, or what's left of it, is definitely a gloomy place in "Endgame." On the BAM Harvey's thrust stage, all is gray. A curving gray wall is pierced by two high, small windows that look out onto gray sea and land; a picture frame is turned toward the wall; and there's a miniature doorway through which appears a pigeon-toed figure named Clov (Casella), wearing a dirty shirt and stained tights and walking in an odd, jerky fashion.

Clov serves a vicious master: Hamm (Turturro) — blind, paralyzed, restricted to a kind of throne on wheels and covered in an assortment of rags and decaying raiment. With his stentorian voice and grand gestures, Hamm rules what little is left of the universe, including his aged and legless parents, Nagg (Epstein, a Beckett veteran) and Nell (Stritch, giving a poignant performance), who somehow subsist in two gray, rusting ash cans.

It is impossible to recapture the effect that Beckett's one-act had in 1957 on an audience grappling with the shock of post-atomic society. But during the production's nearly two hours, Romanian-born director Andrei Belgrader finds resonances for a post-Sept. 11 society.

Turturro, always a fearless actor, shows Hamm reigning over the world's remains with the cruelty and childlike neediness of any number of contemporary tyrants. As Clov, who might or might not be Hamm's adopted son but is certainly his slave, the gifted Casella entertains Hamm and the audience with the vaudeville bits of which Beckett was so fond.

Ironically, in a theater season that has seen the Pulitzer Prize go to the mother of all dysfunctional family dramas, Tracy Letts' "August: Osage County," Belgrader's production reveals that "Endgame," too, is a family drama. But with wider implications.

Watching Epstein's magnificent performance as toothless, cynical, self-pitying Nagg — seeing Nagg cling to the rim of the ash can, then close the lid and disappear, probably forever — we glimpse another take on family. In this view, family in the small, private sense and in the sense of the larger family of the world both are in danger of becoming extinct. (partialdiff)
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