A writer and a wrestler’s odd bond drives ‘Sam and Dede’ at Washington Stage Guild

Samuel Beckett gives a kid a lift. The boy grows up to be a giant. The rest is not history.

In 1982, the German television station Süddeutscher Rundfunk broadcast an unusual 13-minute play, Quad I+II, by Irish playwright Samuel Beckett. Easy to describe but opaque in explanation, the piece consists of four shrouded performers who briskly pace in a precise, repeating pattern around a tight white square, narrowly avoiding collision. So much hustle, no obvious reason. Beckett can say so much with so little.

Quad is referred to briefly in Gino DiIorio’s Sam and Dede, or My Dinner with André the Giant, now at Washington Stage Guild through February 6, and the short choreo-play feels like a fitting metaphor. While there are only two characters in DiIorio’s play, Beckett and the beloved titular wrestler, the actual historical figures are also, in a spectral way, on stage or, more accurately, what each audience member thinks they know of each. Unlike Quad’s figures, Beckett and André, played well by Alan Wade and Benjamin Russell respectively, speak. They speak so much they often end up saying very little in a play that plods a 95-minute play out of an interesting historical anecdote.

Benjamin Russell as Dede and Alan Wade as Sam in ‘Sam and Dede, or My Dinner with André the Giant.’ Photo by DJ Corey Photography.

While living in a French commune north of Paris, Beckett played chauffeur for many local school children. Proving fact is often stranger than fiction, one of the children, André René Roussimoff, grew up to be a giant (the Giant) in the world of professional wrestling. The first three scenes imagine school-bound excursions in 1958. The two discuss cricket, school, and theater, but more than anything, they discuss seeing and being seen, the axis around which nearly the whole play revolves. The remaining three scenes are works of pure fiction: André visiting Beckett after a production of Endgame in 1963; a drink-laden dinner in a hotel room after a wrestling bout 12 years later; and finally a Beckettian ode qua epilogue.

Russell brings an affable and warm presence to André, a perpetual teenager whose lust for life is infectious, both transmittable and at times dangerous. His laugh, broad smile, and Belgian-inflected bass-noted voice conjure André without slipping into parody. Wade’s Beckett (dressed by costumer Sigridur Johannesdottir in Beckett’s “old brown suit” and suede Wallabees) is cool, professorial, an observer who says less than he sees, hiding behind his quarter-sized lenses above his down-turned lips. The two have an ease together that doesn’t quite come off as chemistry but never dips below a mutual interest in one another. Like Gogo and Didi, the two tramps in Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, the two are stuck together, but the production doesn’t quite answer why. What are they looking for in one another? A foil? A friend? An answer? They pace together, narrowly avoiding collision.

The play over delights in its repetitions and homages to Beckett (try to count how many times someone says “I don’t know” or decries “Nothing happens”). The hotel scene is a well-intentioned tribute to Louis Malle’s 1981 film, My Dinner with André. Easy assessments abound. André is a giant, “constantly expanding,” who alternately wishes to be hoisted up by the crowd and just another face in it (at times, the characters’ logic bends like a cloverleaf leg lock). Beckett is a writer whom writing pains, a man of the theater who shies away from the spotlight. André, the body that cannot be filled, Beckett, the mind that cannot be quieted. André wants stories that are “bigger than life,” Manichaean in their morality. Beckett flees from such certainty into a bland inarticulateness (Beckett himself never suffered such a fate. He could, unlike his early contemporary Joyce, “justify every syllable”).

Benjamin Russell as Dede and Alan Wade as Sam in ‘Sam and Dede, or My Dinner with André the Giant.’ Photo by DJ Corey Photography.

There’s an interesting un-timeliness and reserve in Steven Carpenter’s direction, fitting for a play that wants to be Beckettian while rejecting the playwright’s signature bathos and precision. The characters don’t age. The scenes are paced very similarly. The settings, by Carl Gudenius and Jingwie Dai, have a comic wink. Beckett’s steering wheel dwarfs the writer. The hotel room is elegant but strange. The final scene shocks in a rewarding way, and delivers lighting designer Marianne Meadow’s finest moments, as well as, oddly, the most genuine connection between its performers. It’s as if Beckett knew, “give a man a stage and he’ll pace. Stick him in an urn and he may say something.”

Running Time: One hour 45 minutes, including a 10-minute intermission.

Sam and Dede, or My Dinner with André the Giant plays through February 6, 2022, presented by Washington Stage Guild performing in The Undercroft Theatre at Mount Vernon Place United Methodist Church, 900 Massachusetts Avenue NW, Washington, DC. Tickets ($50–$60, with half off for students and $10 off for seniors) can be purchased online.

COVID Safety: Masks are required for all and attendees must present a photo ID and show proof that they meet the CDC definition of being fully vaccinated at the time of entry into the theater with a physical or digital copy of their vaccination card.

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