‘Endgame’ Review: A Laugh at the Apocalypse?

The dog is a small, stuffed toy, pathetic and adorable all at once. A sewing project in progress, he has a patchwork coat, three legs so far — and zero genitals, because those are going to be the finishing touch.

Hamm, the volatile, unseeing tyrant in Samuel Beckett’s “Endgame,” has ordered the creation of this cloth companion: one more creature to shrink from him in the dreary, age-worn room that is his realm.

“Can he stand?” Hamm asks.

Placed on the floor by Hamm’s much-abused attendant, Clov, the pup promptly falls over — right on his snout at the performance I saw the other afternoon at Irish Repertory Theater. It’s the silliest bit of slapstick, and (with a vital assist from Deirdre Brennan, who made the dog) it works just as well as it must have when Beckett dreamed it up in the 1950s. You can almost feel the playwright, a great fan of physical comedy, winking from beyond the grave.

It’s not the only time you get that sense in this revival, starring the Shakespearean actor John Douglas Thompson as Hamm and the actor-clown Bill Irwin, a Beckett aficionado, as Clov. When Clov points his telescope at the audience and tells Hamm, “I see a multitude in transports of joy,” that’s Beckett having a little joke with us.

Joy is hardly the operative word, of course, in this post-apocalyptic play about the direness of the human condition. But pleasure? There’s plenty of that to be found in Ciaran O’Reilly’s main-stage production, whose requisite grimness is edged with the gorgeousness of performances that are sly, vivid and pulsingly alive.

On a set by Charlie Corcoran, this “Endgame” looks just as the playwright meticulously specifies: the bare room with two meager windows so high up that a ladder is needed to reach them; the armchair on wheels, in which Hamm, who cannot walk, spends his days; the two trash cans off to the side, in which his parents live.

Around Hamm’s neck hangs a whistle, and when he blows it to summon the beaten-down Clov, it is piercingly shrill — a sound to cut through far more noise and distance than ever separate them. Really, a dulcet bell would do. But this is how Hamm prefers to punctuate the dreary sameness of his days: with bursts of unprovoked aggression that send Clov scrambling to placate him.

“Why do you stay with me?” Hamm asks — a fair question, as he is capricious and cruel.

“Why do you keep me?” Clov counters.

“There’s no one else,” Hamm says.

“There’s nowhere else,” Clov replies.

They can’t go on. They go on.

Likewise Hamm’s parents, Nagg (an endearing Joe Grifasi) and Nell (an exquisite Patrice Johnson Chevannes). They pop up from their respective garbage cans to bicker, joke and flirt with each other, though they’re just too far apart to share a smooch. They laugh raucously at the memory of the accident that claimed their legs and reminisce dreamily about a boat ride they enjoyed in Italy. Whatever bleak horror they’re enduring now, pain is old hat to them, and they did know beauty once.

“Nothing is funnier than unhappiness, I grant you that,” Nell says.

It’s one of the play’s most famous lines. Still, is it accurate?

Amid the bleak horror of the play, Hamm’s parents, played by Patrice Johnson Chevannes, left, and Joe Grifasi, happily reminisce about the days when they still had their legs.Credit…Sara Krulwich

Clov is miserable, but that’s not what makes him comical as he hauls his stiff-legged body up and down his ladder. Dressed in calico-cat colors by the costume designer Orla Long, and looking like he’s stepped out of a Vermeer canvas that’s browned with age, he has the manner of a captive sprite and a physicality that is pure clown. His muttering rebelliousness is clownish, too.

And Hamm, seated in a chair that’s as much a throne as the one Thompson occupied when he played the title role in “The Emperor Jones” at Irish Rep, is funny because he’s ridiculous, vain and at ease with his own disgustingness. The grossest comic line in “Endgame” — a joke that feels like a nod to Beckett’s luxuriantly crude friend James Joyce — belongs to Hamm. What fun it is to watch Thompson, so often cast in somber roles, land it impeccably.

This is not to say that the play is a laugh riot. In 1956, as Beckett was writing it, he described it as “Rather difficult and elliptic, mostly depending on the power of the text to claw, more inhuman than ‘Godot.’”

All true, yet in the humor he built into that text, he left more space for humanness than the play’s reputation suggests. Despair is the dominant note, but where there is laughter there is hope. This is not sheer nihilism.

“We’re not beginning to, to, mean something?” Hamm asks.

“Mean something! You and I, mean something!” Clov says, and breaks into a smile. “Ah, that’s a good one!”

Through March 12 at Irish Repertory Theater, Manhattan; Running time: 1 hour 25 minutes.

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