Cultural shading elicits the definitive 'Godot'

Special to Newsday

October 27, 2006

The Irishness of Samuel Beckett, the 20th century's bony prophet of anomie and emptiness, is always taken for granted and cited as a point of pride and influence by writers of Irish heritage, as if national origin were artistic destiny. But this seems a bit off-point, not only because Beckett wrote most of his enduring novels and plays, including his 1953 watershed "Waiting for Godot," in France (and originally in French), returning to his homeland infrequently and with little joy.

It's also true because, with its stark, gnomic dialogue and rootless, blasted landscapes, Beckett's writing would seem to have very little in common with the garrulous, site-specific work of such Irish dramatists as J.M. Synge, Sean O'Casey, Brendan Behan, Brian Friel, Marie Jones and Conor McPherson.

The Gate Theatre of Dublin has arrived stateside to bridge this gap with a more or less definitive production of "Waiting for Godot," in a tour stop at NYU's Skirball Center. By shading this bleakly funny meditation with a more overt cultural provenance, director Walter D. Asmus makes the play feel that much more universal.

The unmistakable brogues of Johnny Murphy and Barry McGovern as the baggy-pants tramps Estragon and Vladimir, situate this "Godot" closer to the Emerald Isle, and the plummy Queen's English of Alan Stanford as the petulant, slave-driving landowner Pozzo signifies an unforced class distinction.

But it's more than a matter of accents. The vague sense that these two time-killing indigents might in some distant past have been Dublin schoolboys gives their half-remembered songs and Bible stories a special resonance. It links them hauntingly to a sad, recurring figure who, if not the exclusive property of Irish drama, is certainly among its notable fixtures: the aging bachelor parked at the local pub, subsisting on a morphine drip of beer and whisky chasers.

There's no such liquid sustenance in sight on Louis Le Brocquy's bruisingly stark set, with a wintry lighting design by Rupert Murray which makes even the yellows feel gray. Although they are uprooted from any identifiable social world, the hunched, shaggy Murphy and the tall, quizzical McGovern look like iconic hoboes who happen to be between homeless shelters.

Best of all, Asmus' production catches the oblique but insistent rhythms of Beckett's uniquely poetic language - that odd combination of music-hall capering and barren imagery out of T.S. Eliot's "The Wasteland." When Pozzo and his quivering slave Lucky (Stephen Brennan) gambol absurdly into this unnatural moonscape, the production hits a peculiar stride, pausing at key moments like a stuck videotape to give us stage pictures of stunning, maddening stillness.

It's a measure of this extraordinary "Godot" that these pauses clang as loudly as any speech.

WAITING FOR GODOT. Written by Samuel Beckett. Directed by Walter D. Asmus for the Gate Theatre of Dublin. Through Oct. 28 at NYU's Skirball Center for the Performing Arts, 566 LaGuardia Place, Manhattan. Tickets $45-65. Call 212-279-4200. Seen Tuesday.

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