"Nothing is funnier than unhappiness," says a character in Samuel Beckett's "Endgame," and "Why this farce, day after day?" becomes a refrain in the enigmatic dialogue.
These are signs of the humor glinting in the darkness of this strange and wonderful play, in which four archetypal characters keep playing their empty social roles even though Earth has been decimated and humankind's time is running out. Director Kristina Lloyd sees the fun to be had with the material and, with an exceptional team of actors and designers, has turned it into an absurdist comic ballet. Their staging is a Gryphon Entertainment guest production at the Odyssey Theatre.
Like the more famous "Waiting for Godot" (first performed in 1953), "Endgame" (1957) renders life as a clown show. In Lloyd's staging, the tone is established right away as a servant named Clov (Zachary Quinto) falls into an antic dance with a stepladder he's hauling around. He keeps losing track of the ladder, which causes him to gasp and spin around, looking. Having located it again, he marches over -- stiff-legged and on tiptoe, like a Frankenstein Baryshnikov -- to waltz it into position for his next task.
Clov works in a once-elegant home, its plastered walls crumbling away to reveal bare brick underneath. The floor buckles crazily upward, while the walls plunge down. Designer Theodore Michael Dolas completes the picture with harsh, unforgiving light that magnifies the performers' movements into giant shadows on the walls.
Clov is the only inhabitant of the household who is still mobile. His master, Hamm (Nicholas F. Leland), is confined to a rolling leather armchair, while Hamm's parents, Nagg (Del Monroe) and Nell (Cynthia Fancher), are entombed in trashcans, which are rendered here to look like the entrance tubes to twin bomb shelters.
Some nuclear winter-like catastrophe has struck the outside world. It wouldn't be a stretch to suppose that Hamm, the story's power figure, caused it. (Revealingly, the first word he says is "Me.")
Clov's only power derives from his ability to deny, sabotage or otherwise frustrate Hamm's orders, which he does with a mischievous grin. Nagg and Nell, meanwhile, embody the last vestiges of human kindness. Concerned for his wife's welfare, Nagg offers to share his meager biscuit. He wants to kiss her but can't reach that far.
Later, when Hamm orders Clov to peer into Nagg's trashcan, the grim situation is neatly encapsulated in this exchange:
Hamm: "What's he doing?"
Clov: "He's crying."
Hamm: "Then he's living."
Where: Odyssey Theatre, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., L.A.
When: Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 2 p.m.
Ends: July 19
Contact: (310) 477-2055
Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes