By Ron Fassler . . . 

Samuel Beckett’s prophetic and apocalyptic play Endgame is being given a haunting new revival at the Irish Repertory Theatre— now playing through April 9. Endgame premiered sixty-five years ago, in 1957, at the Royal Court Theatre in London. Beckett, who often wrote his plays in both English and French, chose the latter for this one. In a 1981 article in the New York Times, eight years prior to his death, Beckett stated the reason for this was that “he wanted to get away from his mother tongue; writing in English somehow made it come too easy.” Easy is not a word one associates with absorbing, producing or performing works by Samuel Beckett . . . not to mention critiquing, but here’s my best shot.

Bill Irwin and John Douglas Thompson

Endgame’s one set consists of the interior of a bricked-up room, a makeshift wheelchair, and two garbage cans—the homes of two of its four characters (the wheelchair serves as one character’s throne). A mystery enshrouded in an enigma, it launched Beckett as one of the progenitors of “Theatre of the Absurd,” even before the phrase was coined a few years later by the Hungarian-born critic Martin Esslin. Along with the Irish-born Beckett, European playwrights Arthur Adamov (Russian) and Eugène Ionesco (Romanian/French), Esslin lumped them together as some absurdist triumvirate. Not surprisingly, these artists did not see themselves as part of any collective, but rather as individuals with highly personal visions of the world. Later, their style would be followed and expanded upon by a variety of writers from Jean Genet (French), Edward Albee (American) and Tom Stoppard (Czech/Brit). 

Patrice Johnson Chevannes and Joe Grifasi

With its silences, pauses and repetitions, Endgame brings to mind Harold Pinter, the British playwright who wrote in a variety of genres, but for whom it was usually anathema to wrap up his plays in a neatly tied bow. Like Pinter, the power of language is what’s at play in Beckett’s works, with the characters coming second. Even in his masterpiece, Waiting for Godot, its two leading players, Vladimir and Estragon don’t propel the story so much as live in it, waiting. Waiting for what? To be delivered? To be saved? To be or not to be? It’s powerful stuff in the right hands and with Beckett the journey is always worth the ride, even if you’re not sure much of the time what’s going on. Director Ciarán O’Reilly feels like he has this play in his bones and sees to it that nothing is overembellished nor underplayed, a delicate balance. His set designer, Charlie Corcoran, costumer Orla Long, and lighting designer Michael Gottlieb, all deliver fine work.

What passes for a story in Endgame are the trapped lives (if you can even call them that) of the quartet that make up the play. Its central figure, Hamm (John Douglas Thompson), is a bully and a beast, who lords over his domain (for what it’s worth): a cell of a room with two windows that require a ladder to climb up to see the views. Hamm is also trapped in his chair, his legs no longer working. He is blind and cares not for humankind or his own sad existence. Running out of energy, food and any sense of optimism, this is the endgame, after all, which in chess is the stage when few pieces are left on the board. 

Joe Grifasi, John Douglas Thompson, and Bill Irwin

Hamm’s servant, Clov (Bill Irwin), hobbled by some deformity that doesn’t allow him to sit down (in contrast with Hamm’s inability to stand up), has stumbled out of the Italian tradition of commedia dell’arte. His grumbling servitude, one instant removed from outright rebellion, provides the play with what little laughter it engenders. As embodied by the physical dexterity of the trained clown that Irwin has perfected over his forty-four-year career, makes the performance a must-see. A longtime fan, I’ve never liked him more than in this production. And discovering that he is now seventy-two comes as a huge shock after watching him use his limber body in such an elastic fashion. Long may he reign.

As Hamm’s parents, Nagg and Nell (the garbage can dwellers), Joe Grifasi and Patrice Johnson Chevannes work wonders with their small roles. Grifasi seems to be channeling the gifted comedian Jack Gilford and has found wonderful bits of business from the neck up. Johnson Chevannes, though a bit on the young side, brought enormous reserves of energy to a part that could easily be portrayed as despairing. Her cry of “Ah yesterday,” described in the text by Beckett as “elegiac,” contained no sorrow, a bold choice. 

Bill Irwin and John Douglas Thompson

John Douglas Thompson, as fine an actor as there is, gives Hamm the stature necessary, but falls short of bombast. When he bellows it should shake the rafters. He should instill terror in not only Clov, Nagg and Nell, but in the audience as well. Thompson, a strong physical specimen, doesn’t feel stuck to his seat. I almost expected him to leap from his chair at any moment, instead of being moribund and frustrated by the inability to move. That said, he does convey Beckett’s poetry, which is a major accomplishment.

In the interest of full disclosure, I nodded off a few times during the performance. It may seem strange to admit to this, but I do so because I also went into a dream state, awakening at times confused by what I was seeing and what I was imagining. Call me crazy, but I have a feeling that if Beckett were alive and I told him this it might have produced a smile. I think it’s what he was getting at in the writing. To discover that place where things don’t seem real and yet all too real at the same time.

If such absurdity is your cup of tea, Endgame is a nourishment that, even if it somewhat defies description, defines theater.

Endgame. Through April 9 at the Irish Repertory Theatre (132 West 22nd Street, between Sixth and Seventh Avenues). 85 minutes, no intermission. 

Photos: Carol Rosegg

Cover Photo: John Douglas Thompson