By Samuel Beckett

Starring John Tuturro, Elaine Stritch

Playing at the Brooklyn Academy of Art

Reviewed by Cahir O'Doherty

IT all comes down to this in the end - you and your own mortality. And the irony is that even if you're surrounded you'll be on your own.

If that sounds bleak, well it is, but it can be strangely funny too. Irish playwright Samuel Beckett's Endgame - simply put, one of the greatest plays of the 20th century - asks us to confront our fear of death. It's Beckett's greatest work, and the new production at the Brooklyn Academy of Art (BAM) is about as perfect a rendering of the play as you are ever likely to witness.

Beckett made a career out of peering into the bottomless abyss at the edge of life and describing - unforgettably - what he saw there. Being Irish, he also had an occasional bleak chuckle from time to time.

Why not, he reasoned. What else is there to do? Nothing, says the greatest of all Irish playwrights, is funnier than unhappiness.

Inspired in part - it seems likely - by Shakespeare's The Tempest, Endgame begins where Shakespeare's final plays ends, with Prospero and Caliban, now called Hamm and Clov, dueling it out for the final word - and also trying to stave it off - because when you reach the end of the line all bets are off.

Set in a bare interior - is it a house, a castle or a tomb? - grey light fills the almost empty room and we are left to wonder where the play unfolds. The only thing we do know for certain is that during the play, something - the characters, the day, and even our own lives - is inching closer to its end.

"Something," says Clove, "is taking its course." The game is coming to its end.

In their respective roles screen actor John Turturro (Hamm) and Max Casella (Clov) are pitch perfect from start to finish. They bicker, struggle, laugh and weep in response to the unspeakable - the inevitable final destination we're all journeying to. Casella will be familiar to many from his role as Benny Fazio in HBO's The Sopranos, but as Clov he'll be unrecognizable from the wise guy he played.

The measure of Beckett's artistry is that he can present the despair that accompanies death in a play that often unfolds like a comedy. Pratfalls, repetition and exaggeration, all tools of the circus clown, are employed to great effect here too.

With material this dark, it's a delight to discover how much fun the author is having with his creations. It's a wonderful paradox that such a bleak theme can result in moments of connectedness, transcendence and even joy, but it certainly does.

Nagg and Nell, Hamm's aged parents, have literally been put into the trash. Legless but not drunk, they live out their final days between life and the dumpster.

The image could hardly be more literal. They've outlived their usefulness; their end is already within sight.

As played by Alvin Epstein and Elaine Stritch, two titans of the American theater, this flawless production captures the pathos and humor of their on-the-slagheap predicament so well that it occasionally leaves you breathless.

Epstein is in possession of a drolly expressive, long-lived face, and his line readings are masterful. Equally, Stritch matches him in stature and artistry, mining her role for the riches that dwell within it. Her sighs, when they come, betray decades of experience and paralyzing ennui, and they're as funny as they are unnerving.

Andrei Belgrader directs the play with enormous confidence and sensitivity, eliciting perfectly pitched performances from all four cast members. Thankfully he also makes this production one of the most accessible main stage Beckett performances seen in New York in years.

Belgrader knows that Beckett's work is much closer to Shakespeare than to the kind of authors embraced by the avant garde milieu that first responded to his works, and in this way Belgrader has created a performance that will appeal to all.

It's the questions that the play provokes that make it a masterpiece, the pinnacle and fulcrum of Beckett's art. As soon as you become aware, the play reminds you, you become aware that everything ends.

Endgame is playing at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM), 651 Fulton Street, Brooklyn. For tickets call 718-636-4100.