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Existential Dread Found Live on Stage at the Irish Rep in Samuel Beckett’s Challenging “Endgame”

Play: “Endgame”
Writer: Samuel Beckett
Director: Ciarán O’Reilly
Cast: John Douglas Thompson, Bill Irwin, Joe Grifasi, Patrice Johnson Chevannes
Run: Until April 16th (last four performances will also be live streamed)
Venue: Irish Repertory Theater
Francis J. Greenburger Mainstage
132 West 22nd Street (between 6th & 7th Avenue)

In this world of upside-down values, Bizarro politics and contradictory social analysis, a viewing of any play by ultra-absurdist Samuel Beckett makes much more sense. So, when a new production of “Endgame, directed by Ciarán O’Reilly, opened at New York City’s Irish Repertory Theater recently, it became something one must experience. Previews began at the end of January with an opening date taking place on February, 2nd, 2023. Starring John Douglas Thompson as Hamm, Bill Irwin as Clov, Joe Grifasi as Nagg and Patrice Johnson Chevannes as Nell, the production was originally scheduled to run until mid March, but thanks to audience demand, it has now been extended until mid April.

This stark, one-act tragicomedy is focused on a blind, partially paralyzed, dominating older man (Thompson) sitting at center stage, his harried, servile companion (Irwin) and his geriatric parents (Grifasi and Chevannes) in an ramshackle old house in what seems like a post-apocalyptic wasteland. Two garbage cans sit to the left of Hamm’s wheelchair. Only two small windows at the back suggest there is a world outside.

Hamm references some unspecified “end” whether it is to be the end of their lives or death of the world in general or the end of the events which make up the actual play. Much of the content consists of terse, back-and-forth dialogue between the characters which alternates between bantering and whimpering. Along with trivial stage actions, we are forced to wonder just how they ended up here.

What plot there is held together by Hamm’s telling of a grotesque story-within-a-story that erupts from his mouth from moment to moment. He does this with sometimes bombastic outbursts and other times, a pathetic whining.

An aesthetically profound part of the play is the way the story-within-story and the actual play converge at roughly the same time bringing this skeletal drama to a close. With such skillful actors as these, they eke out humor despite the bleakness, often delivered not with dialogue but with the silent profundity of a head nod, their expressive eyes or awkward gestures.

Upon Hamm’s loudly modulated voicing of the lines, Clov reacts with a world-weariness that lets us know this is not the first time this dynamic between them or the foursome for that matter, has taken place. If anything, Beckett has set this up as if we have been allowed a glimpse into these final moments. The play’s title refers to chess and frames the characters as acting out a losing battle with each other or their fate. Certainly, it’s an odd set of moves that has awarded this play with praise and proclamations that it is the ultimate expression of the existential dilemma — we keep going on no matter how absurd that notion is.

Taken as a whole, much of the dialogue adds up to nothing but bit pieces — sutured together within the context of these 85 minutes, they provoke, prod and compel the audience’s emotional reaction to the infuriating plight of the characters — mostly driven by Hamm’s powerful presence. Though it seems thoroughly unrelenting in its darkness, Clov begins to see a light at the end of the tunnel so there is a glimmer of possibilities.

Originally written in French (“Fin de partie”), the play was translated into English by Beckett himself and was first performed in French on April 3, 1957, at the Royal Court Theatre in London. Written before, but premiering after his most well-known play, “Waiting for Godot,” “Endgame” is among Beckett’s best works and a crucial influence on so many young avant-garde playwrights.

Renowned literary critic Harold Bloom has called it the greatest prose drama of the 20th century, saying, “I know of no other work of its reverberatory power.” Though some might consider “Waiting for Godot” his masterpiece, Beckett considered “Endgame” the most aesthetically perfect, compact representation of his artistic views on human existence. But both plays require repeated viewings to fully appreciate them.

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