ENDGAME, American Theater Company. “There is nothing funnier than unhappiness,” Hamm darkly quips in Endgame, Samuel Beckett’s 1957 follow-up to Waiting for Godot. And sure enough this bleak absurdist play, like Godot, works best when the director treats it as a comedy, casting actors who can give even Beckett’s most chilling lines a light, humorous twist.

That’s why young, earnest directors intent on showing the world they have deep thoughts so often turn out insufferably pretentious productions of this play–more seasoned directors with nothing to prove seem to have an easier time of it. And director Nicholas Rudall, founder of Court Theatre and a fixture on the Chicago theater scene, certainly falls into the latter category; he also appeared in a late-80s production of Endgame at Court directed by the late Michael Maggio. So it’s no surprise that his version of the play is remarkably self-assured, satisfying, and funny.

His four cast members, led by Mike Nussbaum and David Darlow, are just as crucial to this production’s success. All four are as seasoned as Rudall, and all clearly know their way around Beckett’s Gaelic gallows humor. (The play is packed with some of the most depressing jokes in modern theater: “Do you believe in a life to come?” “Mine was always that.”) Even Darlow–who often plays stiff-backed, humorless authority figures–feels right as Hamm’s long-suffering, groveling right-hand man, Clov.

–Jack Helbig