Alvin Epstein and Kathryn Grody in Endgame
Photo © Carol Rosegg
Alvin Epstein and Kathryn Grody in Endgame
Photo © Carol Rosegg
Well-known actors have grabbed most of the media attention surrounding recent New York productions of Happy Days (Lea DeLaria) and Endgame (Tony Roberts), but it's the directors who have had the most difficult jobs in reviving the plays of Samuel Beckett. The playwright left explicit instructions on how he wanted his works to be staged, and a director must follow his words to the letter while still somehow finding ways to surprise the audience.

What happens when such a work becomes a classic? How can a director breathe life into so familiar a play prescribed within such rigid parameters? Charlotte Moore, whose production of Endgame is currently playing at the Irish Repertory Theatre, lets the poetry, bleakness, and occasional whimsy of the original script speak for themselves.

It would be hard to find a more reverent and skillful presentation of this work. Set designer Hugh Landwehr renders the post-apocalyptic environment faithfully; as expected, there are two garbage cans, a kingly throne for Hamm, and two windows upstage center. All of the actors have the same peculiar quirks and impediments: Hamm (Tony Roberts) cannot move from his chair; Clov (Adam Heller) cannot sit, and his atrophied legs force him to limp; Hamm's parents, Nagg (Alvin Epstein) and Nell (Kathryn Grody), live out the remaining years of their long marriage in the dumps -- literally.

I believe there is only one bit of staging in this production that isn't directly called for in the script: At the very beginning, the director has Clov drop the curtain surrounding the theater's thrust stage. This device immediately establishes the self-conscious tone of the evening and sets up Clov as a servant. Shortly after the play begins, Clov considers leaving his immobile master but can't quite muster the courage to do so. Nagg and Nell have the opposite dilemma: They're trapped inside trash bins and cannot find the strength to move closer together. The most they can do, after a ridiculous amount of effort, is knock on each other's tins.

The environment is inhospitable to life. When Hamm senses a bug crawling offstage, he commands Clov to kill it "or it'll die!" Their most pressing concern is that creatures outside the house will procreate and continue the miserable cycle of life. (It's probably unnecessary to point out that Beckett battled depression throughout his life.) But, all things considered, the play is often bitterly funny, written in a vaudevillian style that this production captures well. In the words of Nell, after she has managed to lift her head from her bin: "Nothing is funnier than unhappiness."

Roberts, a seasoned stage actor who is best known for his roles in several Woody Allen films, makes a surprisingly commanding Hamm. His version of the character is an ailing king: He occupies his throne with gravity, shouting orders to his servant with equal amounts of authority and, ultimately, impotence. Adam Heller has a look of almost cosmic weariness as Clov, and his gait is equal parts Richard III and Quasimodo. Alvin Epstein, who was in the original American production of Endgame as Clov, and Kathryn Grody are incredibly winning as the old couple. Epstein gives Nagg a hilarious facial tic that makes him look like he's perpetually gumming an ice cube or a piece of soaked bread.

The Irish Rep has included Samuel Beckett in its current season because the playwright was born near Dublin, but his writings largely reflect his years in France. Most academics place him in the existentialist movement along with such scribes as Jean-Paul Sartre and Eugene Ionesco. Endgame is a timeless work, and Charlotte Moore's take on it is very worthwhile.