There’s always room for Beckett’s ‘Endgame’ in a world on the brink


The End — the big one — is prefigured in “Endgame,” Samuel Beckett’s bracing portrait of humanity’s benighted shuffle to doomsday. Hamm, who’s lost most of his faculties (save language, for sure), barks endless orders at an exasperated servant, Clov, as Hamm’s decrepit parents, Nagg and Nell, legless and imprisoned in garbage cans, plead for scraps of food and love.

“Finished, it’s finished,” are the first words of the 1957 play considered a tragic counterpoint to Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot.” But another consideration of the 90-minute drama’s poignancy is now beginning: Two new productions of “Endgame” have started up — one at off-Broadway’s Irish Repertory Theatre, starring John Douglas Thompson and Bill Irwin as Hamm and Clov, and one at D.C.’s Washington Stage Guild, with Bill Largess and Matty Griffiths portraying the selfsame embodiments of mutual dependence and aloneness.

The well-acted revivals, directed by Ciarán O’Reilly in New York and Alan Wade in Washington, hew scrupulously to Beckett’s demands for fealty to his stage directions: The subterranean sets, with opaque windows overlooking gray voids, are eerily similar. Although how much would you need to embroider in the slow fade to nothingness? True to their domineering character’s name, both Thompson and Largess floridly and amusingly hog the spotlight, badgering poor, worn-out Clov to situate their character’s chair-on-wheels precisely at center stage. A Hamm to the bitter end.

Bitter is the operative word here, for “Endgame” is a far more acrid depiction of end times than any apocalyptic filmic extravaganza. There’s no reckoning with past transgressions, no promise of redemption. Hamm is a cold, selfish creation, unmindful of the basic needs of Nagg and Nell (Joe Grifasi and Patrice Johnson Chevannes in New York; David Bryan Jackson and Rosemary Regan in D.C.). And Clov is self-punishingly servile, wasting his remaining energy on a man who allows him no time to ponder his own existence; Irwin in particular devises an affecting physicality for a broken character.

Maybe that helps explain why theaters are thumbing back the pages to this nihilistic work. We are talking about the end of days again — thanks to melting ice shelves and violent out-of-season storms — just as we did during the Cold War when fourth-graders were hiding under their desks during nuclear bomb drills. Nothing quite like the uncompromising darkness of “Endgame” to compel an audience to face up to armageddons.

It’s not what you’d call an entertaining evening, except perhaps when Nagg pops open his trash can lid, and then Nell does, and we are witness to the last recorded vestiges of familial devotion. Both sets of Naggs and Nells assay their parts splendidly. Still, I’m weirdly drawn to the discursive “Endgame,” and Beckett’s meticulous choreography of time winding down. And I was curious to know what draws theater artists to it.

So I asked Irwin and Thompson. And although they confessed, in a joint Zoom interview, to finding the play as esoteric as many others do, they also found joy in wrestling with it.

“It’s a really tricky thing to approach,” said Irwin, who played Lucky in a 1988 production of “Godot” with Robin Williams, Steve Martin and F. Murray Abraham. “If you’re obsessed with Beckett, which to my surprise I find that I am in this part of my life, this one is unavoidable. It is full of the most intricate and gorgeously structured language and, at the same time, feels still kind of haphazard and a little bit silly.”

Thompson, long a devotee of Shakespeare and August Wilson, said he came to Beckett late and even avoided confronting the playwright’s enigmatic inclinations.

“But I find now that the play is more realistic and more matched or suitable to our world,” he said. “I feel Beckett was saying language is not enough, language cannot incorporate, it fails when we try to explain the state of the human condition. So this is all we have. And it pales in comparison to the emotions we are feeling.”

You sense in the performances of both Thompson and Largess that essential aspect of Hamm’s psyche — that as long as he keeps talking, he can be certain that he’s still alive. The Clovs of Irwin and Griffiths, preoccupied with meeting Hamm’s needs, never grasp that what Hamm requires most of all is their ears. It’s the same for the play itself: “Endgame” doesn’t really end until there is no audience left to see it.

Endgame Directed by Alan Wade. Set, Joseph B. Musumeci Jr; costumes, Stephanie Parks; lighting, Marianne Meadows; sound, Marcus Darnley. About 90 minutes. Through Feb. 19 at Washington Stage Guild, 900 Massachusetts Ave. NW.

Endgame Directed by Ciarán O’Reilly. Set, Charlie Corcoran; costumes, Orla Long; lighting, Michael Gottlieb; music and sound, M. Florian Staab. About 90 minutes. Through March 12 at Irish Repertory Theatre, 132 W. 22nd St., New York.

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