Considered by Nobel Prize-winning Irish playwright Samuel Beckett to be his personal favorite and his masterpiece, Endgame, a one-act tragicomedy on the absurdity of existence, made its Off-Broadway debut in 1958, at the height of the Theatre of the Absurd movement. It’s now back Off-Broadway in a masterful production at Irish Repertory Theatre, directed by co-founding producing director Ciarán O’Reilly and performed by a stellar cast that captures both the darkest of gallows humor and the devastating futility of Beckett’s bleak perspective on life, the inexorability of death, and the impending obliteration of the world.
The apocalyptic four-hander (which takes its name from the final stages of a chess game, in which few pieces remain) is set in a dreary derelict room with filthy tattered drapes that open to a deteriorating brick wall and two small high windows (haunting set design by Charlie Corcoran). In it are two rusted garbage cans surrounded by rubble and a central winged armchair on a wooden dolly, inhabited by the blind and immobilized Hamm, unable to move from the seat; his legless parents Nagg and Nell, confined to the separate trash bins; and his servant Clov, physically infirmed and staggering, who was taken in by Hamm as a child and feels obligated to stay with him, always at his beck and call with the blow of his master’s whistle. It’s a life journey that parallels the story-within-a- story told by Hamm, which concludes simultaneously with the end of the play, when the dismal grey light that permeates the room abruptly goes black (evocative lighting by Michael Gottlieb), signaling the final demise of everyone and everything.
Noted for his extraordinary command of Shakespeare and the classics, John Douglas Thompson brings harrowing potency and gravitas to his portrayal of Hamm, as he shifts fluidly from absurdist/existentialist ramblings and dire declarations to bullying, barking at, and bickering with the others. He also displays moments of humanity in his storytelling and co-dependent relationship with Clov, who wants to leave but has no one else and nowhere to go, realizes he’s better off there than alone, and stays till the inescapable ending.
Bill Irwin brings his tour-de-force physical comedy and sad-clowning to the role of Clov, struggling to walk but unable to sit (the complement to Hamm’s inability to get up), throwing his leg up repeatedly on the ladder he drags in and out of the room to look out the windows and report what he sees at Hamm’s command, throwing the stuffed toy dog he demanded at him, putting an alarm clock to his ear to awaken him, then hanging it on the wall as a constant reminder that time is running out, and leaving and returning through the room’s only door, recognizing that the only way out of this life is death.
As Nagg and Nell, the terrifically engaging and funny Joe Grifasi and Patrice Johnson Chevannes pop up and down in the trash cans, deliver the sight-gags of their unlikely situation (like trying to kiss one another but unable to reach from their sedentary positions) and add immeasurably to the mordant humor with their laughing nostalgic musings about “yesterday” and her well-known line that “Nothing is funnier than unhappiness” – the perfect encapsulation of Beckett’s absurdist sensibility. And Nell’s upbeat presence also provides, for me, the most tragic existentialist gut-punch of the play, when Hamm asks if she’s dead, Clov replies she seems to be, and no one has any reaction whatsoever to her passing.
The outstanding cast and direction are supported by dusty old costumes by Orla Long that distinguish between the faded finery of Hamm and the simple work clothes of Clov, disquieting original music and sound by M. Florian Staab, and minimal but significant props by Deirdre Brennan.
Irish Rep’s production of Endgame is profoundly provocative, deeply disturbing, and morbidly humorous – a timeless and powerful example of Beckett’s meaningful absurdity.
Running Time: Approximately 80 minutes, without intermission.
Endgame plays through Sunday, March 12, 2023, at the Irish Repertory Theatre, 132 West 22nd Street, NYC. For tickets (priced at $25-95, plus fees), call the box office at (212) 727-2737, or go online. Masks are required for all Wednesday matinee and Saturday evening performances.