Set in a barren world at the end of time, "Endgame" is Irish playwright Samuel Beckett's gorgeous meditation on the absurdity of life in the face of certain death.

If there's one thing the pandemic has proved it's that humanity prefers not to think about mortality, their own or anyone else's. Most people don't have the capacity to gaze for long into that bottomless canyon without a bad case of vertigo. 

So instead they all do what the characters in Samuel Beckett's matchless play do, they go about their absurd existences in the hope that old habits – if not conviction – will see them through another horrifying day.

Beckett spent his whole life, in one way or another, contemplating mortality. And not just his own, all of it, the whole giant gaudy parade to nowhere, often laughing at it when he wasn't filled with insuperable despair. 

"Nothing is funnier than unhappiness," says one of the characters in what for my money - and his own - is his best play.

HAPPY OPENING to the cast & creative team of ENDGAME!
We’re honored to have Bill Irwin, John Douglas Thompson, Joe Grifasi, and Patrice Johnson Chevannes portray the characters of Hamm, Clov, Nagg & Nell on our Mainstage. Directed by Ciarán O’Reilly.

— Irish Rep (@IrishRep) February 2, 2023

This month, Irish Rep producing director Ciarán O'Reilly has brought the show to their stage in a time of perilous uncertainty to match the play's own American premiere in 1958.

In fact, Joe Grifasi, the actor that played the younger Clov in the original production, is back again to play the elder Nagg in the current production, in a bit of continuity that reminds us of theatre's great power to supply a sustaining vision in times of crisis.

This elegant production also stars John Douglas Thompson, an actor of immense poise whose personal predicament as Hamm echoes Jaques in "As You Like It" - “O knowledge ill-inhabited, worse than Jove in a thatched house...”

Douglas Thompson is by turns acidly funny, despairing, and delightful in a double act with his servant Clov, played by the gifted physical actor Bill Irwin, who matches him in scene after scene, although both work in concert at all times to serve the play. 

Nell actress Patrice Johnson Chevannes gets to deliver some of the play's most memorable lines, and this she does with the right degree of humor and pathos at all times.

Endgame at The Irish Rep

Endgame at The Irish Rep

Hand on heart, I was bemused by the set design for this production, which seemed to unfold in a bricked-up Victorian basement rather than the traditional somewhere that looks like nowhere designs I have been used to.

Charlie Corcoran is a designer whose work and choices have consistently impressed me but this set felt genuinely claustrophobic in a way that sometimes aided and sometimes took me out of the world of the play.

O'Reilly's production lets the author speak and trusts the words to build the world, which they do, weaving a spell you hardly notice until you gasp at the next lines. The absurdities of Wilde's "The Importance of Being Earnest" find their last absurdist gasps in this stark magnum opus - and both provide barnstormer roles for gifted actors.

I was moved and amused by this hard-won vision and by this subtle and heartfelt production, which mined a pathos I haven't seen in previous productions.

Maybe it's the hard era we are still passing through, or maybe it's the Irish note, but the Rep allows the poignancy of this work to get a rare hearing alongside the humor and undeniable darkness.