Go away! It's the theater! Run while you still can! That's the first thing Barry McGovern tells us, and it sounds like good advice, but wait a moment: "You can't leave," he says sadly. "You're afraid to leave. It might be worse elsewhere."

Go away! It’s the theater! Run while you still can! That’s the first thing Barry McGovern tells us, and it sounds like good advice, but wait a moment: “You can’t leave,” he says sadly. “You’re afraid to leave. It might be worse elsewhere.” He’s undoubtedly right about that — “I’ll Go On” is about as good as it gets, with McGovern wringing laughs from some of Samuel Beckett’s bleakest passages. True, Beckett’s novels “Molloy,” “Malone Dies,” and “The Unnamable” chronicle empty striving and inevitable failure, but who’s to say that’s not funny?

Certainly not McGovern (nor Wile E. Coyote, for that matter — failure and comedy go together like milk and cookies). One of Beckett’s actors of choice, McGovern first performed “I’ll Go On” in 1985. Usually, an actor who does the same role for 23 years will settle into his performance, frequently damaging it with complacency or fatigue, but McGovern’s characters are neither comfortable nor tired.

Instead, life continues to drive these characters forward into the pitch-black future, and McGovern seems possessed by these three guys — Molloy, Malone and a man without a name — and subservient to them, rather than the other way around.

“I’ll Go On” starts out with a chuckle: McGovern summons a wandering spotlight to his little corner of the stage, where he delivers the curtain speech to end all curtain speeches. “Perhaps it’s free,” he says, baffled at the audience’s continued refusal to get up and leave. “Perhaps it’s compulsory.”

But McGovern keeps the aud bound to their seats by telling them that there’s someone else backstage — someone who’s nearly here! It’s all text from “The Unnamable” (a notoriously difficult book), but it can’t escape its place in the theater any more than we can escape ours.

Abruptly, the lights fall, and McGovern reappears as Molloy on Robert Ballagh’s ingeniously apropos forced-perspective set. Ballagh’s artificially tilted surfaces make the whole stage into a corner, with two walls rising up like the covers of an open book, the whole thing rimmed with white neon light. It’s alternately grungy and marbled, depending on James McConnell’s lighting, and Molloy grumbles across it like a turtle in a particularly barren terrarium.

He’s got troubles aplenty, including a strange relationship with his wife (with whom he communicates solely by whacking her on the head a preordained number of times), and terrible gas.

It’s the wife problem that really sticks in the brain: Molloy hits her once for yes, twice for no, and so on up to four times. But upon reflection, he realizes that she’s so absentminded that she would have forgotten the first knock by the time the third one fell.

That, in a nutshell, is the center of “I’ll Go On”: It’s about oblivion, whether it’s forgetting the first blow on the head, or the final swallowing blackness. Why not give up when we’re always in the process of losing our lives, even the memories of them? Beckett wonders, and his answer is simple and unsatisfying: because we can’t. We continue because we must.

Still, as the next character (Malone) observes, “One of the thieves was saved. That is a generous percentage.” Malone is the most Catholic of these characters and the most anxious to escape Christianity — “I will die tepid,” he threatens, on the strength of St. Paul’s promise that God will “spit you out of (his) mouth” if he does so. Fine, McGovern seems to say. I’ll go to Hell.

But he can’t. It’s in the final and best sequence of “I’ll Go On,” taken from the end of “The Unnamable,” that McGovern dramatizes that inability to slow down and give up. “I can’t go on! ‘You must go on!’ I’ll go on!” he shouts. After being buttered up with slapstick and fart jokes, we’re completely unready for this and it hurts to hear. It’s like the lights have gone out on McGovern’s soul.

The show’s end is both unsettling and completely appropriate. The moment is appallingly theatrical, and it recalls his sudden exit from the stage after his silly, barbed curtain speech: He leaves us in the darkness, alone together, surprised to be laughing.

I'll Go On

Gerald W. Lynch Theater; 611 seats; $90 top

Production

A Lincoln Center presentation of a solo show in two acts from texts by Samuel Beckett, selected by Gerry Dukes and Barry McGovern. Directed by Colm O Briain.

Creative

Set, Robert Ballagh; lighting, James McConnell. Opened, reviewed July 18, 2008. Running time: 1 HOUR, 30 MIN.

Cast

With: Barry McGovern.
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