The laughs come early and often in American Conservatory Theater’s new double bill of “Endgame” and “Play” by Samuel Beckett. There’s pain, and considerable humor, in these endlessly engaging one-acts by the great Irish playwright.
That may come as a surprise to theatergoers who think of Beckett — whose full-length “Waiting for Godot” is a 20th-century masterpiece — as bleak and humorless. These productions, staged by ACT artistic director Carey Perloff, delve into the depths of human experience in ways that are both profound and laugh-out-loud funny.
Of particular interest is Beckett’s darkly comic 1957 “Endgame,” which was the follow-up to “Godot,” and the play he considered the better of the two. It’s a day in the life of the blind, bitter, wheelchair-using Hamm (played by the excellent Bill Irwin).
As Hamm berates his servant, the long-suffering Clov (Nick Gabriel), his aged parents, Nagg (Giles Havergal) and Nell (Barbara Oliver), linger nearby, living out their final days encased in a pair of rusty trash bins. In spare dialogue and arresting soliloquies, the characters reveal their individual miseries and their fragile interdependence (this is the play that contains the famous line, “Nothing is funnier than unhappiness.”)
The cast is outstanding. Havergal and Oliver are note-perfect as the wistful, exasperated parents. Gabriel brings a vibrant, malevolent energy to the put-upon Clov.
And Irwin — one of the world’s great physical comedians — gives a masterful performance of contained fury and brilliant timing without ever leaving his chair.
Beckett’s 1963 “Play,” presented before intermission, is the evening’s surprise. Like “Endgame,” it’s about relationships — in this case, those of a man, his wife and his mistress.
With each character occupying a large stone urn — only their heads are visible — they recount their unhappiness at the way the affair turned out. Beckett’s elliptical text is dense and colorful, and the characters deliver it in rapid-fire style, returning to key phrases in an endlessly overlapping cycle of memory and emotion, fear and recrimination.
Perloff paces this rarely-performed gem for maximum impact, and the three actors — Anthony Fusco, Rene Augesen and Annie Purcell — deliver the lines with breathtaking precision.
Both productions unfold on grim settings designed by Daniel Ostling (sets), Alexander V. Nichols (lighting), Fabian Obispo (sound) and Candice Donnelly (costumes) — ideal for Beckett’s serious, and seriously funny, plays.