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        Daniel Radcliffe and Alan Cumming in ‘Endgame’: Theater Review

        Endgame review Daniel Radcliffe
        Manuel Harlan

        The idea that Samuel Beckett’s plays are actually funny in performance is considerably more honored in theory than in practice. But happily, a rare pairing of his “Endgame” and the little-seen “Rough for Theatre II,” now playing at the Old Vic in London, bucks the trend. No one goes to Beckett expecting to split their sides, but director Richard Jones ensures that his starry duo of Alan Cumming and Daniel Radcliffe raise considerably more laughs than you’d expect from a double-bill about enduring life and death.

        Jones’ hallmark energizing of the stage — there’s never a slack, uninvestigated moment in his productions — is apparent from the word go in what is effectively the 25-minute curtain-raiser that is “Rough for Theatre II.” Although tonally different, the play’s idea is not dissimilar to the angel assessing the life of James Stewart’s George Bailey in “It’s A Wonderful Life.” Here, dressed in dark suits, Cumming and Radcliffe play middle-managers assessing and accounting for the life of the man we see standing at the back of the set, facing away from the audience, perched on a high window-frame. Will he leap to his death?

        As the two men methodically sift through the man’s files filled with testaments to and memories of a life deeply ordinary, Cumming is simultaneously punctilious and bumptious. His obsession with order and his fiery determination to deal with the matter swiftly drives him to distraction, winning unexpectedly big laughs of recognition. Radcliffe, meanwhile, is his more buoyant, hopeful foil, accentuating the positive with a bright beaming demeanor.

        The double-act relationship is yet more pivotal to “Endgame.” Cumming is the master Hamm, blind and confined to his wing-backed chair; Radcliffe is Clov, his put-upon servant who begins each day by opening the curtains of the single, nearly featureless room in which Hamm lives.

        Beckett’s estate-holders legendarily insist upon productions following the (very many) stage directions to the letter, so it’s no surprise that Jones follows the business Beckett minutely details. But he invests action not just with exactitude but dynamic energy.

        Clov is described as having a “stiff, staggering walk,” so Radcliffe’s hobbled gait as he clambers repeatedly up and down ladders in an attempt to look out of the two high windows is not just technically correct but, in Jones’ meticulous hands, a perky (near) silent comedy routine.

        Cumming, meanwhile, locked peevishly into his chair, pulls off the considerable trick of evoking sympathy for a character who is largely savage in his demands of poor Clov. Not an actor shy of self-conscious performance, Cumming turns vigorous self-satisfaction to dramatic purpose: he’s as self-lacerating as he is punishing to others.

        Those others include his tender parents Nagg and Nell who, famously, live in über-Beckett style in dustbins. Popping up to give the perspective of lives long-lived, they are peachy parts with elegantly written soliloquies of sadness, punctuated by stabs of comedy. As Nagg, Karl Johnson is patient and deeply touching in his sense of forbearance, and he’s matched by Jane Horrocks, who ages up about 40 years to play Nell, beautifully besieged by memory. The moment where they lean towards one another to try to kiss is shockingly heartbreaking.

        Blind Hamm, of course, cannot see that and goes on, raging against the day. Cumming invests him with roaring self-confidence sliced through with consciously camp humor, often at Clov’s expense, that cunningly reveals the desolation beneath. Although hard-working Radcliffe also aims for pain, his admirable intent is too self-conscious for the double-act fully to take wing.

        Wisely, the website for the Old Vic indicates that the play is only suitable for audiences 14 and up, a clear attempt to dissuade young Potterheads from turning up and being entirely baffled. The limited run has nonetheless already mostly sold out. Beckett novices may be thrown by what they see, but Jones’ winning combination of honoring text without the usual painful high-seriousness makes for a surprisingly engaging, if not entirely successful, evening.

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        Daniel Radcliffe and Alan Cumming in ‘Endgame’: Theater Review

        The Old Vic, London; 1067 seats; £65 top ($84). Opened, reviewed Feb. 4, 2020. Closes Mar 28. Running time: 2 HOURS, 10 MIN.

        • Production: An Old Vic Theatre presentation of two one-act plays by Samuel Beckett.
        • Crew: Directed by Richard Jones. Sets and costumes, Stewart Paing; lighting, Adam Silverman; sound, Fergus O’Hare; movement, Sarah Fahie; production stage manager Kate McDowell.
        • Cast: Alan Cumming, Daniel Radcliffe, Jane Horrocks, Karl Johnson.
        • Music By:
        超碰100