Off-Broadway comedy comes on strong; Endgame. Play by Samuel Beckett. Directed by Joseph Chaikin.

Samuel Beckett does not write plays to cheer the heart or lift the spirits. His characters can sometimes move the spectator to laughter and even to tears. On their author's terms, they live lives of desperation, often with fierce intensity. But they seldom arouse more than pity in the spectator. Frequently, they provoke disgust.

"Endgame" ("Fin de Partie"), first acted at London's Royal Court Theater in 1957, is no exception to the Beckett rules of play.

The first two stage directions of this long one-acter read: "Bare interior. Grey light." The occupants of the bare interior are Hamm, a blind wheelchair-bound tyrant in dark glasses; Clov, his dominated but saudy man- of-all-work; and Nagg and Nell, Hamm's pitiful parents, who occupy a downstage enclosure for trash cans.

"No one that ever lived ever thought so crooked as we," remarks Clov at one point -- a view the spectator is not likely to contest. This is a play about contradictions and reciprocal contrariness. (Clov can't sit; Hamm can't stand.) It is about the ties that bond and the bonds that tie. At heart, it seems to me a study of the failure of affection and compassion in human experience.

The cast directed by Joseph Chaikin explores the dark and sometimes illumined corners of this complex work. Michael Gross, as a kind of knockabout music-hall Clov, is particularly effective. So i sJoan MacIntosh as Nell. Daniel Seltzer gives an intelligently rhetorical performance as the domineering Hamm and James Barbossa has been encouraged to mug extravagantly as Nagg. The Manhattan Theater Club revival was designed by Sally Jacobs, with costumes by Mary brecht and lighting by Beverly Emmons.

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