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‘Godot’ eludes star-studded cast

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

WAITING FOR GODOT, by Samuel Beckett. Directed by Andrei Belgrader. Starring John Turturro, Tony Shalhoub, Christopher Lloyd and Richard Spore. Presented by the Classic Stage Company. At 130 East. 13th St. Through Dec. 21.

At least part of the inspiration for Samuel Beckett’s "Waiting For Godot" came, according to his biographer, James Knowlson, when the playwright saw two paintings by the 19th century German romantic Caspar David Friedrich. Standing before one of the paintings, "Man and Woman Observing the Moon," created in 1824, the Dublin-born playwright turned to his companion, who later related the incident to Knowlson, and said, "This was the source of ‘Waiting For Godot,’ you know."

On at least one other occasion, Beckett referred a writer to a somewhat earlier Friedrich canvas, the 1819 "Two Men Contemplating the Moon."

Whichever work actually inspired what is generally accepted as Beckett’s greatest and probably most often produced play would perhaps be beside the point, were it not for the fact that the image suggested by the painter is so graphically present in the decidedly uneven "Godot" currently being presented by the Classic Stage Company, with Andrei Belgrader as director.

At the end of each of the play’s two acts, Estragon and Vladimir stand with their backs to most of the audience, since the CSC is, after all, a three-quarter round situation, facing a rising moon resembling a gargantuan diaphragm the color of a Sicilian blood orange.

On paper, the production, the starriest since Steve Martin, Robin Williams, F. Murray Abraham and Bill Irwin did a "Godot" for Lincoln Center’s Newhouse stage a decade ago, looked exceptionally promising.

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John Turturro and Tony Shalhoub, both inspired clowns who are also fine, seasoned actors, seemed well teamed as, respectively, an Estragon, aka "Gogo," and a Vladimir, "called "Didi," for the waning century.

In addition, Christopher Lloyd, an actor of frequently terrifying power, but also a performer with a comedic gift, appeared to be, potentially at least, a Pozzo for the record books.

For his part, director Belgrader had done fine work in past CSC seasons, particularly a "Scapin" that brought Stanley Tucci to prominence, and, later, a staging of Diderot’s "Rameau’s Nephew," which did pretty much the same thing for actor Shalhoub.

This time, regrettably, Belgrader appears to have been at least somewhat at odds with his material. Ridiculous as even the suggestion seems, the director appears to have rejected, or overlooked, one of the very few things on which most students of "Godot" agree, namely that Estragon and Vladimir, whatever else they may or may not be doing, are performing a series of vaudeville routines, each a lost, suffering human being eager to distract this companion, and himself, from the endless void which yearns before them.

This particular "Waiting For Godot," as it plods its way toward that immortal final image, consumes very nearly three full hours. This is a "Godot," devoid for the most part of much in the way of humor, that requires the audience to do some extremely extensive "waiting," along with the play’s primary participants.

The issue of humor is very much at the heart of the matter. The play is chock-full of jokes, puns, parodistic elements and gags, some of them, by Beckett’s own admission, lifted from other sources, including the repertoire of the music hall and even the movies. What the playwright himself referred to as the "three hats for two heads" routine, done very well here by Turturro and Shalhoub, is something Beckett borrowed gleefully from the 1933 Marx Brothers movie classic "Duck Soup."

A "Waiting For Godot" with so much of its inherent humor unrecognized and unserved is bound to be seriously heavy going, somewhat like a piano score compromised to the point of giving equal weight to each note.

Biographer Knowlson, whose recent "Damned to Fame: The Life of Samuel Beckett" ranks among the finest studies of the playwright’s life and work, contends that the play "springs out of Beckett’s Irish background, and not simply in the sense that the English translation contains actual Irish phrases or sentence structures." He goes on to say that the elusive " ‘feel’ of the characters [even in France] is unmistakably Irish."

It’s very probably politically incorrect to point it out, but with the Italian-American Turturro and the Lebanese-American Shalhoub cast as Gogo and Didi, something disconcertingly Levanto-Mediterranean seeps into this "Waiting For Godot," with further damage done by the former’s unswerving New Yorkese speech patterns and rhythms.

The pair does have some rewarding moments. Most of them, in Turturro’s case, involving physical comedy, since the actor’s speech, and even his voice itself, seem to be uneasy with the material. In the play’s opening moments, for example, as Gogo attempts to remove his fetid boots, Turturro’s skills approximate those of a circus contortionist, rolling on the padded stage floor and bending his legs into pretzel-like positions.

Shalhoub’s best innings bring his inherently poignant, compassionate personal qualities into play, with his attempts to console his inconsolable companion approaching the heartbreaking.

Strangely, it is the play’s secondary pair, the domineering Pozzo and his slave-servant, the unluckiest of all possible Luckies, who seem closest to author Beckett’s demanding intentions. Christopher Lloyd, who almost always appears to be playing one or another subtle variation on Frankenstein’s monster, is a ringmasterish Pozzo in what appear to be patent leather dancing pumps and pinkish, clocked stockings, with his head shaved for the occasion. Sheer force of will comes, clearly, fairly easily to this actor, and, as times, his cruel dominance over the craven Lucky, here played by the frail and aged-seeming Richard Spore, may remind you at times of the silent-movie villainy of Erich von Stroheim.

Spore, who seems almost too fragile to perform the work demanded of him by his "master," suggests many of the Crucifixion images critics have long found present in the work. When the time arrives, the actor is fully up to Lucky’s long, taxing monologue and delivers it memorably.

Director Belgrader has delivered a kind of "by-the-book" Beckett, with none of the dramatist’s notorious demands ignored or violated. The solitary rock is there, and so is the skeletal tree the author demands, an arboreal isolate still capable, somehow, of putting cut a leaf or two upon demand. The moon is there, when and where it’s supposed to be, swinging in a rather silly arc before taking its position against the CSC’s back wall, an expanse of brick washed in deep blue light to simulate the night sky under which Estragon, Vladimir and the others find themselves, waiting answers to Samuel Beckett’s unanswerable questions.

What the director, and, to a much lesser extent, his actors, have failed to capture is, very sadly, the heart of the matter and the core of the play.

"Waiting For Godot," written between October 1948 and January 1949, and first produced on Jan. 3, 1953 in Paris, has always had the power to confuse an audience and, to one extent or another, to defeat and confound the theater professionals striving to bring it to life on the stage.

The CSC’s lackluster new production indicates, perhaps more emphatically than anything else, that Beckett’s masterpiece has lost none of that frustrating capacity.

— Joseph Hurley

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