A review of Catalyst Theater Company's production of "Endgame" in the Feb. 14 Style section incorrectly identified the actor playing Nagg. He is Steven Kirkpatrick. (Published 2/15/03)

Is the beating of the war drums getting to you? Are you coming down with a case of those Scavenging-for-Duct-Tape Blues? Well, then, can I interest you in a comforting 90-minute primer on the meaninglessness of life?

Indeed, in the stressful current climate, Samuel Beckett's "Endgame," the last word on nihilistic despair, almost qualifies as escapism. In fact, if this admirable production by the fledgling Catalyst Theater Company is in any way remiss, it's in not taking complete advantage of the gallows humor at the dark heart of the absurdist classic.

For sure, there are laughs here, especially care of Steven Fitzgerald, who delivers a top-drawer performance as Nagg, a legless old man confined to a trash can, dependent on his blind son Hamm (Eric Singdahlsen) for his daily diet of biscuits. Peering out beseechingly over the rim of the can -- his hollow eyes and bald pate give him the look of an Edward Gorey illustration -- Fitzgerald emerges as a fascinating Beckett grotesque, feeble and infantile all at once.

And as with everyone else in "Endgame," slowly fading to black. His trash bin, like the identical one inhabited by his wife, Nell (Wendy Wilmer), sits in a pile of rotting garbage. Decay is the prevailing condition in Hamm's house, the last stop on the road to oblivion. "It's finished. We're finished. Nearly finished," says Hamm, who's so depleted that his body barely sheds blood. Wilmer's Nell, from her bin, manages the trick of seeming to flame out like a spent candle. Even the world's hardiest hangers-on, rats and fleas, are disappearing from the landscape around them.

The sense of futility that permeates this Beckett masterwork is cleanly communicated in Christopher Janson's smooth staging. The tiny black-box theater at the Capitol Hill Arts Workshop is an apt environment for the play; it readily supports the claustrophobic idea of a world collapsing in on itself. The cosmic joke of "Endgame" has not been lost here: that even with the knowledge of the annihilation to come, we go on selfishly living moment to moment, bickering and needling and fighting over every last crumb.

As with the eternal time-killers of "Waiting for Godot," the denizens of "Endgame" take refuge in conversation, or an idea of it. From a primitive wheelchair, Hamm barks endless capricious orders at Clov (Jesse Terrill), his servant and surrogate son, who limps robotically about the room, as if he were a chess piece. (It's not "Endgame" for nothing.) As his name suggests, Hamm may have been an actor; what's clear is that he has an obsession with the spotlight -- he's forever demanding that Clov park his wheelchair precisely at center stage. And he has a propensity for windy soliloquies that drive Clov from the room.

Singdahlsen makes a chilling Hamm -- a death's-head in hobo's rags. His monologues drag a bit, though; they're too contemplative at times, and one could wish that he took more pleasure in the power Hamm wields over Clov. Terrill has the interesting and difficult challenge of playing a fool who is no fool, and as he puts himself through the humiliating ordeal of satisfying Hamm's whims, there is the faintest hint of the filial devotion that binds him to a slave driver. It's a nifty bit of work.

The scheduling of "Endgame" by Catalyst, a troupe formed a little more than a year ago, could not have been more timely. With a little plastic sheeting on the walls and a few bottles of water in a corner, the theater would probably conform to the safe-room specs as laid out recently by federal officials.

The sense of foreboding seems almost eerily prescient. "What's happening?" the unseeing Hamm asks anxiously at one point. Clov's reply is both cryptic and creepily on point. "Something," he explains, "is taking its course."

The line gets a nervous giggle. Even more than at most times, laughing at "Endgame" feels like whistling past the graveyard.

Endgame, by Samuel Beckett. Directed by Christopher Janson. Set, Thomas F. Donahue; costumes, Michele Reisch; lighting, Dan Ribaudo. Approximately 90 minutes. Through March 15 at Capitol Hill Arts Workshop, 545 Seventh St. SE. Call 800-494-TIXS or visit www.catalysttheater.com.

Eric Singdahlsen and Jesse Terrill in Samuel Beckett's absurdist classic.