Scholars are welcome to butt their heads against the great conundrum Beckett poses in "Endgame," now taken up in this BAM revival by Euro helmer Andrei Belgrader -- namely, Who is Hamm and What's His Problem?

Scholars are welcome to butt their heads against the great conundrum Beckett poses in “Endgame,” now taken up in this BAM revival by Euro helmer Andrei Belgrader — namely, Who is Hamm and What’s His Problem? Could this enigmatic figure be a cruel God at the end of his patience? Petulant mankind at the end of his world? One man at the end of his life? In a bravura performance that sweeps aside the scholarly cobwebs, John Turturro makes it clear that the shrunken figure in the big chair is the Artist at the end of his wits.

While smartly leaving Hamm open to further interpretation, Turturro delivers his definitive line — “Me to play” — with such glee that the “play” on the word can’t be ignored.

Both younger and livelier than the dusty and decrepit Hamms we’ve grown up on, this dispirited but mentally alert monster even looks like a writer in the rather fashionable (if moldy) Astrakhan dressing gown and cap designed by Candice Donnelly. Stuck in his throne-like thinking chair and bossing his minions about, this cruel and capricious dictator could easily be taken for a moody genius on a day when the creative juices are running dry. For the scant use that designers Anita Stewart (set) and Michael Chybowski (lighting) make of the bare stage — not to mention the cavernous expanses beyond it — we might as well be in his study.

Rather than becoming rattled by reports of devastation outside the walls of his narrow realm, this Hamm seems positively energized by the rumors of doom and gloom. Even as Hamm’s vision blurs and his joints stiffen, Turturro keeps yanking him back to life to deliver another chapter in the fabulous unfinished narratives that are all he has left.

“What dreams!” he says of his visions, even as he admits it’s time to let them go. “It’s time it ended … and yet I hesitate to end.”

His companion Clov has no vision — not even the curiosity to take off the dark glasses and look into Hamm’s eyes when he’s asleep — which is exactly how Max Casella plays him. In keeping with the well-scrubbed aura of Belgrader’s production, it’s a clean performance, very precise and technically sharp, of someone with absolutely no imagination.

But this haunting character could just as easily be Hamm’s son — or his hired clown, his unwilling slave or even his executioner — as his fed-up servant. Denied these and other, more menacing interpretations, this impatient and unloving Clov can’t quite convince us of the unbearable but unbreakable bond he shares with his cruel master.

While there’s not enough emotion being mined from this macabre relationship, there’s plenty of it sloshing around in the garbage cans where the heartless Hamm has buried his aged parents and whatever painful feelings they awaken in him.

His doddering mother, Nell (Elaine Stritch), has the play’s most beautiful lines, an elegiac memory of a perfect day that she and Nagg (Alvin Epstein) spent rowing on Lake Como. But since Stritch barely spares a glance for her companion, the heartbreaking context is lost.

There are no flies on Epstein, though, who carries off every scene he’s in. From his speechless miming of the infirmities of old age to his childish insistence on telling his own story in his own way and in his own good time, this veteran thesp (who played Lucky, in “Waiting for Godot,” let us not forget) serves up Beckett as Beckett deserves. If his isn’t the definitive Nagg, the world is flat.

Endgame

BAM Harvey Theater; 874 seats; $75 top

Production

A Brooklyn Academy of Music presentation of a play in one act by Samuel Beckett. Directed by Andrei Belgrader.

Creative

Set, Anita Stewart; costumes, Candice Donnelly; lighting, Michael Chybowski; production stage manager, James Latus. Opened, reviewed April 30, 2008. Running time: 1 HOUR, 45 MIN.

Cast

Hamm - John Turturro Clov - Max Casella Nagg - Alvin Epstein Nell - Elaine Stritch
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