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Edge of his seat

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In the iconic 1980s and ’90s television series “Doogie Howser, M.D.,” Max Casella’s character, Vinnie, was constantly crawling in through the window of the show’s title character. In the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s new production of Samuel Beckett’s “Endgame,” Casella, playing Clov, opens the show at a pair of windows. This time, however, he’s peering through a set of bars, staring out into a post-Apocalyptic wasteland.

Casella limps from window to window and, when satisfied that the sky is gray and the ocean is still as always, moves to the center of the stage where Hamm (John Turturro, “Romance & Cigarettes”), his wheelchair-bound and blind employer, friend, enemy and father figure, sits covered by a sheet. As Hamm’s covering is removed, so begins another long, trying day of arguments, threats and nothingness. Everything here — in the fine tradition of Beckett’s work — is both sad and comic; Hamm can’t walk and Clov is unable to sit, and Hamm’s parents, Nell (Elaine Stritch, “30 Rock”) and Nagg (Alvin Epstein, “Law & Order”) live in garbage pails at the front of the stage. Nell puts it best when she says, “Nothing is funnier than unhappiness.”

As Hamm, Turturro — clad in orange pajamas, a fur-trimmed overcoat and a hat — is brilliantly bitter and blustery. Whether offering his father a sugarplum (when there are none) to listen to a story, or berating Clov for any number of missteps, there’s a gleefully sinister quality that makes Turturrro’s Hamm almost charming. Whether cuddling with his three-legged stuffed dog or commanding Clov to wheel him to the exact center of the room, this Hamm lives up to his name as much as possible.

Indeed, all of the players are irresistible in their roles. Epstein — who played Clov in the American premiere of “Endgame” — and Stritch, attempting to kiss across the distance that separates the bins each calls home, had couples in the audience cringing, and the way they played off of one another — not to mention Turturro and Casella — was both eerie and endearing.

Beckett’s works are, of course, not laugh riots. Nor are they warm and fuzzy. So while the actors do a commendable job under the direction of Andrei Belgrader, “Endgame” is still almost two hours of dark, dreary, end-of-the-world drama.

After staging Beckett’s “Happy Days” earlier in the season, BAM has shown an admirable commitment to the playwright. It might not always be easy to sit through — especially on the prison-quality seats at the BAM Harvey Theater — but the work is smart and important; so much so that BAM produced this show itself and scored serious star power to perform. It’s a bet that paid off and, unfortunately for Casella’s Clov, is much grander to look in on than out from.

“Endgame” runs now through May 18 at the BAM Harvey Theater (651 Fulton St. at Rockwell Place in Fort Greene). Tickets are $25 to $75. For information, call (718) 636-4100 or visit www.bam.org.

Updated 4:01 pm, November 10, 2010
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