There's a table in a Long Wharf Theatre rehearsal room piled high with books and articles about Samuel Beckett. These include several volumes of his collected letters (the fourth and final volume of which was published just last year) and such biographies as "Samuel Beckett: The Last Modernist" by Anthony Cronin.
For many people, Beckett is more read, or read about, than he is seen. Yet the great Irish playwright, who lived from 1906 to 1989 and wrote his most popular works (including the game-changing "Waiting for Godot") in the 1950s and '60s, has always been warmly embraced by Connecticut theaters, which have been staging his plays with pleasing regularity for decades. Yale Repertory Theatre did Beckett's "Happy Days," for example, this past May, and that play has also been seen previously at Hartford Stage and Westport Country Playhouse.
The Long Wharf presented Beckett's "Krapp's Last Tape" in 2011, starring the stage and film actor Brian Dennehy. Now Gordon Edelstein, a lifelong Beckett fan, is helming a new production of "Endgame" for Long Wharf, where he has been artistic director since 2002. He wanted to do it with Dennehy.
Edelstein says he's been after the actor to star in "Endgame" for at least a decade. The rest of the cast he's arranged for this famously difficult, four-person play is equally impressive. Reg E. Cathey, a 1970s Yale School of Drama grad with a long theater resume and who is renowned for his roles as Wilson on "The Wire," Martin Querz in "Oz" and ribs-restaurateur Freddy Hayes on "House of Cards," plays the peripatetic role of Clov to Dennehy's wheelchair-bound Hamm.
The ashbin-bound couple Nagg and Nell are played by Joe Grifasi (also a Yale School of Drama alum, whose film work ranges from "The Deer Hunter" and "Ironweed" to "The Naked Gun" and "The Hudsucker Proxy") and Lynn Cohen (the versatile New York actress known to "Hunger Games" fans as Mags).
"Endgame" touches on issues of infirmity, insecurity, mortality and destruction.
Hamm: Do you know what's happened?
Clov: When? Where?
Hamm (violently): When! What's happened? Use your head, can't you? What has happened?
Clov: What for Christ's sake does it matter?
Hamm: I don't know.
Prior to a rehearsal in mid-December, all four actors sat down to discuss "Endgame," Beckett, and their long winding careers in the American theater. The mood of the wide-ranging conversation was light. Some might wish to contrast that with the doom and gloom that permeates Beckett's plays, but fans of the writer will quickly remind you that his works can be very funny. Cathey, Dennehy, Grifasi and Cohen all have mixed brash comedy with heavy drama throughout their careers.
"Beckett is wickedly, horrifyingly funny," Cohen declares.
"These characters have to laugh," Grifasi says. "We have to laugh at ourselves in a strange way."
"You weep, and you begin to laugh," Dennehy chimes in.
Beckett himself may have the last word in this discussion. In "Endgame," he has Nell say "Nothing is funnier than unhappiness, I grant you that."
Asked about Edelstein's years of urging him to portray the imperious Hamm, Dennehy says, "I decided to do it before death rather than after."
"Beckett's speeches are so easy to learn," Dennehy continues. "His cues are erratic, but so accommodating."
"You get so rattled by that, just committing to that," says Grifasi. "But if you do the groundwork…"
The performers discuss how some of Beckett's plays were inspired by the writer's experiences during World War II, when he worked with the French Resistance movement and spent time in the devastated countryside. They can relate. Dennehy served in the Marines, Grifasi was in the U.S. Army in the mid-1960s, Cathey says "my dad was career Army," and Cohen visited Okinawa and other war-torn areas on theater tours. They talk of Beckett's "post-Armageddon" scenarios and "blasted landscape" settings.
There is a lot that seems unreal about Beckett's work, but Cohen suggests that "the older you get, the more real it becomes to you. Beckett speaks to me in a profound way. I don't know if it's the years on my body or what, but it takes me by the throat. I can't even explain it. He was not an old man when writing these plays, but he understood it."
"Old people get thrown away, marginalized," Dennehy adds, alluding to the image in "Endgame" of Nagg and Nell in ashbins, covered with a sheet. "People listen to them only when they have to."
"I knew I'd end up in a trashcan," Cohen sighs. "That would be my career — the great trashcan."
Cathey, who at 58 is the youngest member of the cast, demurs. "It's fun being with a bunch of people who've been around."
"Around is an understatement," replies Cohen, who turned 83 in August. "This group is so wonderful. It's like diving into a pool of warm water."
"And not yellow water!," Cathey adds, to gales of laughter from the group.
The actors all agree that they are in a special place. Many of the books and articles on Beckett that litter the room came from Edelstein's own collection. As a teenager, Edelstein wrote to Beckett and received an autographed book in return. He brings that passion and knowledge to rehearsals.
The play's scenic design is by Eugene Lee, who's worked with Edelstein many times in the past. Lee is resident designer at Rhode Island's Trinity Repertory Company and has several Tony Awards (including one for "Wicked") but may be best known for his decades as production designer for "Saturday Night Live."
"Endgame" is being done in the Long Wharf's more intimate Stage II space, where Dennehy did "Krapp's Last Tape" six years ago and where he and Grifasi appeared in Eugene O'Neill's "Hughie" in 2008.
"I'm totally in a state of mass confusion, doing this," Dennehy says. "But at the end of the day, I'm quivering with anticipation. This is a great, great play. The combination of intellect and passion is so powerful in this show. It requires audiences to participate. You have to listen. You have to feel. You have to care."
ENDGAME, by Samuel Beckett, directed by Gordon Edelstein, is at Long Wharf Stage II, 222 Sargent Drive, New Haven, runs through through Feb. 5. Performances are Tuesday and Wednesday at 7 p.m., Thursday and Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 3 and 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m., with an added matinee on Jan. 25 at 2 p.m. and Sunday evening performances on Jan. 8 and 15 at 7 p.m. Tickets are $34.50-$99.50. 203-787-4282, longwharf.org.