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Theatre Review by David Hurst - March 9, 2020

Emily Kuroda, Jo Yang, and Wai Ching Ho
Photo by Chad Batka
Korean-Canadian playwright Celine Song's fascinating play, Endlings, making its New York debut at New York Theatre Workshop after a world premiere last year at American Repertory Theatre, is really two plays joined fitfully together.

Boasting the same cast and production team as at A.R.T., the moving first play is about three geriatric haenyeos—women who make their meager living ocean-diving to harvest shellfish—who are miserable, lonely, and waiting to die. Imagine a grim Korean "Golden Girls" with only three women and a lot of f-bombs. The self-referential second play is about a young Korean-Canadian playwright chaffing to live, but who's torn about the authenticity of her work as she struggles to finish a new play about three geriatric haenyeos. Imagine a self-indulgent fringe festival entry that thinks fourth-wall-breaking meta devices are clever. How much you'll enjoy Endlings will depend on your ability to enjoy the compelling charms of the first play without being overwhelmed by the self-indulgence of the second.

If you're wondering what an endling is, the production, cleverly and economically directed by Sammi Cannold, tells you even before you sit down. Projected on a scrim is the definition of an endling: an individual living thing that is the last survivor of its species. We soon meet three such endlings in the form of the 70-ish Sook Ja (Jo Yang), the 80-ish Go Min (Emily Kuroda) and the 90-ish Han Sol (Wai Ching Ho), three South Korean women on a destitute island who don diving suits every day to go deep into the ocean in search of a living. Their dedication to the traditional ways of their ancestors is unquestioned, but whether their lives are fulfilling is seriously in doubt.

Sook Ja's husband died when they were young and she never had children. Go Min's husband beat her and she, in turn, beat her children, who never visit. Han Sol's grandchildren call, but she tells them she doesn't think of them in an effort to keep them away so they don't make the same mistakes she did. All of them are waiting to die, but they soldier on each day unable to stop diving and complaining bitterly to each other about wasted existences and lives not lived. Thanks to the superb actresses inhabiting the haenyeos, their love for each other is palpable and painfully heartfelt, especially when tragedy strikes.

Miles G. Jackson and Jiehae Park
Photo by Chad Batka
Suddenly, Endlings switches to Song's second play, also set on an island—the island of Manhattan. A young woman self-consciously tells us she's a Korean-Canadian playwright named Ha Young (Jiehae Park) who's writing a play about three haenyeos, the play we're watching, because a "white establishment" encouraged her to do so. She's torn about whether she's selling out her integrity while trying to remain true to her desire to tell stories about Asian people. She asks her white playwright husband (Miles G. Jackson) to read her play and tell her what he thinks. We know he's white and a playwright because he wears a sign around his neck telling us so. At this point, Song's foray into meta-theatre grows a little too self-conscious for its own good.

But the power of the three old women's stories keep pulling you back in to Endlings. Despite their plight being played for laughs, their stories run the gamut from grim resignation to searing rage. While the oldest of them, Han Sol, finds an escape in television ("Television rules, Hollywood forever"), the youngest of them, Sook Ja, repeats a haunting mantra that will pull at your skin and make your teeth ache: "Who will inherit my life? No one, if I can help it. I wouldn't wish it on anyone."

Both plays pose existential questions about how we should live, and, since this is ultimately a play about real estate, where we should live. But you'll be thinking about Song's ocean-diving women long after you've stopped worrying about whether her integrity's intact. What a shame she didn't dig a little deeper into the play that actually means something.

Through March 29, 2020
New York Theatre Workshop, 79 East 4th Street (Between 2nd Avenue and Bowery), New York NY
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