Three elderly women step onstage in wetsuits, armed with nets and small knives. They are a trio of haenyeos (or “sea women”), divers who harvest seafood and pearls for survival. On this remote Korean island, cut off from civilization, the three have only each other as company. Between diving runs they reminiscence–or bicker. The harshest of the three, Go Min (Emily Kuroda), explains why you must beat your children. Han Sol (Wai Ching Ho), a kinder soul, wonders at the beauty of television. Sook Ja (Jo Yang) is quieter, like the nervous child of the group. (She’s only in her seventies, after all.)
Their talk quickly turns morbid. Sook Ja mourns the loss of her husband, and all the great sex they had. Han Sol reminds the others that they cannot die before her, because she is older, so that would be “fucking stupid.” Go Min keeps repeating that once all three die, their traditions will be gone forever. The humor of these early scenes is reminiscent of playwright Celine Song’s brutally dark and unsentimental Tom & Eliza. It is very entertaining, but even as we’re enjoying the ladies’ company, it’s hard not to wonder where this is going. Is there a whole play here?
Yes and no. Even before Song enters Endlings as a character, it’s evident that more is going on than meets the eye. Haenyeos are real enough, but in Sammi Cannold’s staging, there’s something a bit fantastical about this island. Also…when exactly are we? Then the playwright shows up (played by an enjoyably sharp-edged Jiehae Park) and unspools both the play’s contemporary resonance and her own ambivalence about even writing it.
Look: when “the playwright” steps out and starts addressing the audience, it’s often not a great sign. “Big grad school energy,” you might call it. You wonder if the playwright just ran out of other ideas. (For all its strengths, Jordan Harrison’s The Amateurs ultimately felt this way.) With Endlings, though, the turn is the point. Once Song fully takes charge of the story, it launches into flight, filled with an angry energy that jolts the audience back upright.
It starts with Song and her White Husband–he wears a sign, “White Husband, also a playwright”–debating what we’ve seen so far. The husband’s sign is a wonderful misdirect. He is clueless about haenyeos, of course, but he’s not just a gag. He meets Song’s uncertainty about her work with a brutal honesty. She is twice as harsh on herself, and no consolation is offered. It initially feels odd, but actually it’s just right. Whether in a New York apartment or a remote Korean island, brutal truths reign and there is no room for sentiment.
Two barnstorming set pieces follow: the three divers performing “Showtime” on a subway train (insane), then an extended mock-MTC play about white people problems, which Song and White Husband attend. The mock play is so, so funny, you’ll wish it would never end. The joke doesn’t really develop, of course, but neither do white plays. It’s just the same white shit, over and over again. That the sketch so closely resembles MTC’s current off-Broadway production The Perplexed only makes it funnier.
Song isn’t just having fun here (though she is having a lot of fun), and before the wackiness can overwhelm, she redirects again. Without your even realizing, the play has built–however chaotically–to a moving observation on the “real estate” of stories, and of lives.
Endlings is both a burst of righteous anger and a gentle balm. Song is, rightly, angry that she must second-guess every bit of herself she shares, while white playwrights lumber self-indulgently across New York. But in a moving final scene, the anger turns to comforting release. Certainly it is self-indulgent. Endlings is a self-indulgent play, and it does have big grad school energy. It’s also magical, truthful, and a hell of a good time.