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Endgame

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Samuel Beckett purists can rest a bit easier now: The apocalypse has been averted. Well, at least partially.

Those still staggering from Lea DeLaria's tradition-shattering (some might say corrupting) turn in Happy Days will be relieved by the Irish Repertory's staunchly traditional mounting of Endgame, which is running through April 10. In many ways, Charlotte Moore's production sticks reverently close to Beckett's original vision of the last four members of the human race ironing out their remaining interpersonal conflicts before it's too late.

But though Moore never deviates significantly from Beckett's script or the thorough stage directions that pepper it, the mood permeating the last day in the final outpost of humanity is decidedly off-kilter. Humor is an important presence in most Beckett plays, a welcome way of piercing the darkness often shrouding his unpleasant - and, to some, distasteful - ideas. But there's a surfeit of sunlight, however grey, in Moore's conception, and most of it emanates from the central role of Hamm, the blind, wheelchair-bound master of the house played here by film and stage comedian Tony Roberts.

His casting is a fine idea in theory. Roberts's dry urbanity would seem ideal to provide a sense of controlled resignation for a man who, after turning his back on his family and friends, discovers that there's almost nothing left of himself. The wistful, almost cavalier attitude that Roberts affects nicely serves Hamm's scenes with his servant Clov (Adam Heller), effectively Hamm's opposite in every way (Hamm is old and cannot stand; Clov is youthful and cannot sit), and Nagg and Nell (Alvin Epstein and Kathryn Grody), his two parents whom he's shut away unceremoniously in immense trash drums.

During most of these scenes, Roberts's line delivery, which varies between sing-songy and monotonic, is pointed enough to give the character interactions the bite they need. It's during Hamm's lengthier speeches that Roberts proves too disconnected, and he often seems to lack even a shred of feeling on which Hamm can hang his dispirited hat. His solo pontificating is particularly parched, without the anchoring sense of urgency and passion that could prevent this Endgame from tumbling onto the wrong side of the border separating the subtly intriguing from the dull.

The other cast members fare better, particularly Beckett veteran Epstein, who appeared in the original 1956 Broadway production of Waiting for Godot, and Grody. They create compellingly crooked portraits of Hamm's ancient progenitors, and find the surest balance between the serious and the comic in the play's absurdist text - when Grody states that "Nothing is funnier than unhappiness," you are forced to believe it, but you laugh anyway. If Heller is occasionally a bit too broad as Clov, he convincingly delineates his character's complete (if ultimately futile) journey from servitude to the self-sufficiency.

Most importantly, the actors (including Roberts) all feel as though they're in the same play, which is a credit to Moore's work with them. She might have done better to extend that firm hand to the production's creative team, who turn in too much uneven work of their own. While Linda Fisher's garbage-can-chic costumes are fine, Clifton Taylor's lights are distractingly non-specific and Hugh Landwehr's ramshackle shack of a set captures none of the suffocating desolation and hopelessness in which the characters are supposedly trapped.

Beckett, of course, took care of a great deal of that himself, writing for Endgame some of his most precise, stinging observations about the futility of existence: "Nature has forgotten us. / There's no more nature."; "The end is in the beginning, and yet you go on."; "Why this farce, day after day? / "Routine. One never knows." The entire play is asking why, when the odds are so desperately stacked against you, you should even bother.

In this production, the playwright and his interpreters find a satisfying enough answer: Life - and, of course, death - is its own reward, and knowing when to give up the fight is sometimes just as important as knowing when to soldier on. Even if the surroundings are murkier than is perhaps ideal - sharper Beckett is always better Beckett - Moore and her company soldier on bravely and boldly, stumbling only in their attempts to warm up feelings that, by their nature, are best served cold.

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Irish Repertory Theatre
Endgame
Through April 10
Running Time: 90 minutes with no intermission
Irish Repertory Theatre, 132 West 22nd Street
Schedule and Tickets: 212.727.2737