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Theatre Review by Marc Miller - February 2, 2023

Joe Grifasi, John Douglas Thompson, and Bill Irwin
Photo by Carol Rosegg
Exactly what Samuel Beckett was up to with Endgame has been the source of much speculation. A meditation on the futility of life? A fever dream about the inevitable journey toward death? A post-apocalyptic cri de coeur? Such is his ambiguity that it could be all or none of the above, and the faithful, starry rendering now at Irish Repertory Theatre passes along capably enough, even as it confounds, baffles and perplexes, to indulge in a Beckett-esque string of synonyms.

Charlie Corcoran's set is suitably bleak: what looks like an upstage castle parapet with high, small windows peering out on a monochromatic gray horizon, and a downstage armchair populated by Hamm (John Douglas Thompson), abutting two trash cans, in which reside his two legless parents, Nagg (Joe Grifasi) and Nell (Patrice Johnson Chevannes), with dislodged bricks spilling out between them. It's a dispiriting landscape for Clov (Bill Irwin) to intrude upon. Cursed by a barely functioning left leg, which Beckett never bothers to explain, Clov does Hamm's voluminous bidding with a variety of resignation, willingness and bitterness. There's considerable music in Irwin's delivery, and a generous sampling of his long-germinating clown skills; he can turn his face into masks representing the gods of comedy and tragedy without trying. And he moves so gracefully, even with Clov's bum gam, he's a pleasure just to watch.

There's music in Thompson's delivery, too; his voice, we know from past performances, is a versatile instrument. But he's tasked with more of Beckett's taxing, contradictory epithets: "The bigger a man is, the fuller he is. And the emptier," and such. As Hamm is blind, and his eyes are almost always covered with enormous sunglasses, that voice will be taxed to the max to provide variety where facial expression cannot. This Thompson can do. But you won't understand everything he says, and maybe you're not supposed to.

The non sequiturs fly thick and fast: "Why don't you kill me?"; "I don't know the combination of the cupboard." We gather that what's out beyond those windows is wasteland, and whether we're in an actual physical world, or just Beckett's mottled imagination, is for us to decide. And plot, forget it. Endgame is a series of confrontations, many nonsensical, that actively resist forward motion. Absurdity piles upon absurdity, with Hamm coveting, then hurling away, the three-legged stuffed dog he claims as a pet, and Clov furnishing whatever mind-bending humor Beckett provided. Hamm: "What time is it?" Clov: "The same as usual."

There's welcome punctuation from Nagg and Nell, who divert all too briefly with reminiscences of a happier past and musings about a benighted present and future, if any. Grifasi, the program notes, has been associated with Endgame for a half-century, and he has the Beckett rhythms, and anomie, down pat—especially when retelling a still-funny joke about the creation of the world versus the creation of a pair of trousers. And Chevannes is such a lively Nell, with such a ringing delivery, you only wish Beckett allowed her to pop up out of that trash can more often.

But it's swiftly back to the frazzled Clov taking care of the demanding Hamm, the cryptic repetitions, the inexorable push toward the endgame, be it literal or metaphorical, and the stressing of the pointlessness of existence. Director Ciarán O'Reilly keeps it moving, though Beckett's stage directions are so exacting, it's not clear how much he really had to do. Michael Gottlieb's lighting is appropriately depressing, and M. Florian Staab combines some fetching "Thus Spake Zarathustra"-like music with a sound design so welcomely natural, I'm not even sure there are any mics up there.

Samuel Beckett terrifies me, so you may wish to look elsewhere for a more authoritative analysis of this Endgame measured against others. To these eyes, it's a more than competent production, and if you're already partial to the author's cold emotional landscape and mystifying existential abstractions, you'll probably eat it up. The rest of us may choose to side with Hamm, who opines at one point early on, "This is not much fun."

Through March 12, 2023
Irish Repertory Theatre
Francis J. Greenburger Mainstage, 132 West 22nd Street, New York NY
Tickets online and current performance schedule: