By Samuel Beckett; Directed by Ciarán O’Reilly
Off Broadway, Classic Play
Runs through 4.9.23
Irish Repertory Theatre, 132 West 22nd Street
by Regina Robbins on 2.4.23
John Douglas Thompson and Bill Irwin in Endgame. Photo by Carol Rosegg.
BOTTOM LINE: Beckett's dark comedy of 20th-century despair is proven timeless in the hands of director Ciarán O’Reilly and some of New York's best stage actors.
Irish Rep’s stages are small, but that’s just as well when mounting a production of Samuel Beckett’s Endgame. A play that engenders an overwhelming sense of claustrophobia, it takes place in a single room, where three of its characters are physically trapped. The fourth is hobbled by pain but not so impaired that he couldn’t make an escape, if he had the will—but does he? Because this is Beckett, the action unfolds over 85 minutes rather than petering out in just ten, asking—but not necessarily answering—questions about family, intimacy, capitalism, religion and war…for starters. The cramped stage is hosting impossibly large ideas.
Endgame might be the biggest downer of Beckett’s generally bleak full-length plays, its central characters the least lovable. It’s a blessing, then, to have Bill Irwin and John Douglas Thompson in the lead roles; the former is a Beckett expert and the latter a novice, but both are the kind of stage actors who make a meal out of difficult texts. Thompson plays Hamm, a blind, chair-bound man who, despite his disabilities, controls everyone around him, including his hapless servant (slave?) Clov, played by Irwin. Also on hand for the mind games are Hamm’s parents, Nagg (Joe Grifasi) and Nell (Patrice Johnson Chevannes), who live, or are kept, in two adjacent garbage cans, placed just far enough apart to prevent them from kissing. That’s the kind of play we’re dealing with—one in which the only characters who show any affection for each other are prevented from fully expressing it. It’s grim, yes, but don’t feel bad if it also makes you giggle, at least at first. Nell explains it herself: “Nothing is funnier than unhappiness…it’s the most comical thing in the world. And we laugh, we laugh, with a will, in the beginning. But it’s always the same thing. Yes, it’s like the funny story we have heard too often, we still find it funny, but we don’t laugh any more.”
As befitting a play called Endgame, everyone onstage is old or older. However, it’s not merely their lives that are approaching the end, but the world itself—not that we see very much of it: the only windows in the room are so high and small that Clov has to climb up on a ladder to look out. He describes what he sees as “zero...zero…and zero.” What’s happened? The play doesn’t say specifically, only that food and bicycle parts seem to have run out and seeds won’t sprout. Whether you take that as a literal doomsday scenario or a metaphorical one is largely up to you.
Putting Irwin and Thompson at the center of this existential square dance adds unique layers to a text that’s already thick with mystery, literary references and creeping dread. A half-broken man of few words (except when forced to answer Hamm’s impatient questions), Clov is an ideal role for for the endlessly watchable Irwin, a performer who has all but single handedly kept the clowning tradition alive in America. Thompson’s Hamm is the yang to Irwin/Clov’s yin, physically helpless yet psychologically dominant, his rich voice and exquisite diction used alternately to wax philosophical about his miserable condition and to bark commands and insults at the members of his cheerless household. In their smaller roles, Grifasi and Johnson Chevannes make every moment count; he's pathetic, she's pitiable, their wretchedness alleviated only by their happy memories of the past—though they don’t necessarily agree on what the happy parts were.
It’s to director Ciarán O’Reilly’s credit that his cast is able to take us along with them on this confusing journey without losing us on the way. Endgame’s greatest irony, of course, is that nobody goes anywhere (see also: Waiting for Godot, Happy Days) and almost nothing changes, yet when it’s over we feel as if we’ve climbed a mountain…and seen an unforgettable view. It’s hard to imagine a better mountaineering team than the one Irish Rep has assembled.
(Endgame plays at Irish Repertory Theatre, 132 West 22nd Street, through April 9, 2023. The running time is 85 minutes without an intermission. Performances are Wednesdays at 2 and 7; Thursdays at 7; Fridays at 8; Saturdays at 2 and 7; and Sundays at 3. Masks required Wednesday matinees and Saturday evenings. Tickets are $50-$95 and are available at irishrep.org.)
Endgame is by Samuel Beckett. Directed by Ciarán O’Reilly. Scenic Design is Charlie Corcoran. Costume Design is Orla Long. Lighting Design is Michael Gottlieb. Original Music & Sound Design by M. Florian Staab. Production Stage Manager is Jeff Davolt.
The cast is Bill Irwin, John Douglas Thompson, Joe Grifasi, and Patrice Johnson Chevannes.