Off Broadway Reviews
Boasting the same cast and production team as at A.R.T., the moving first play is about three geriatric haenyeoswomen who make their meager living ocean-diving to harvest shellfishwho 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.
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.