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Waiting for Godot
(Theater at St. Clements; 151 seats; $55 top)
A Red Horse Prods. and Rock and Hard Place Prods. presentation of the play in two acts by Samuel Beckett. Directed by Alan Hruska. Set, Kenneth Foy; costumes, Ann Hould-Ward; lighting, Paul Miller; sound, Matthew Burton; wig and hair design, Robert-Charles Vallance; production stage manager, Alan Fox. Opened Nov. 16, 2005. Reviewed Nov. 12. Running time: 2 HOURS, 30 MIN.
Vladimir Sam Coppola
Estragon Joseph Ragno
Boy Tanner Rich
Pozzo Ed Setrakian
Lucky Martin Shakar
By ROB KENDT
Blathering about nothing in particular ... that's been going on now for half a century," notes Estragon to his fellow sad sack Vladimir, somewhere past the one-hour mark of "Waiting for Godot," Samuel Beckett's extraordinary existential vaudeville, which has also been o going on for 50 years now (in English, at least). Director Alan Hruska's admirable Off Broadway revival nails the blathering and the nothingness -- the chatter that rustles impotently against an encroaching darkness -- but misses the play's overarching musicality and mutes its currents of danger. This is iconic Beckett, and a fair introduction to his stark aesthetic, but it doesn't stir or move us as the play still can.
Admittedly, there's a lot of academic dust to shake off this mid-20th-century classic, whose influences now seem to ripple in both directions: backward to the clowning and absurdist traditions that inform it and forward to the suggestive indirection of Pinter and Albee and to the dented camaraderie of Mamet and Shepard. It towers over a century, in other words, not only as a theatrical document but as a prophetic reflection of the millennial, apocalyptic age in which it was born.
But as a matter of staging, "Godot" remains as bone-simple as a blank-verse poem. The good news is that Hruska gets the cracked odd-couple pairing of the two aimless hobos, Vladimir (Sam Coppola) and Estragon (Joseph Ragno), satisfyingly right, starting on a visual level: Coppola has a long, droopy face and a slouchily resilient frame, while Ragno has a boyish, stubbly mug and a squirrelly, wearily wound-up pluck.
Ann Hould-Ward's costumes invoke a classic music-hall reversal, putting Vladimir in clothes that are a size too small and Estragon in a baggy suit at least a size too big. Both sport standard-issue crumpled derbies, and Vladimir's dirt-distressed yellow tie, yoked around his collarless neck, only accents his destitution.
Thesps' performances, too, are freighted with a convincingly irritable familiarity and smudged with longing. They're never better than at the top of act two. Wondering aloud whether they should part ways, they capture one of Beckett's toughest, most tragic themes: the chill of solitude that drives humans toward each other for warmth, only to have their fears of insignificance confirmed and magnified by the transaction. This Gordian knot, as tight and final as a noose, is one in which Vladimir and Estragon twist and squirm, and it's momentarily a bracing, awful spectacle.
For an object lesson in another kind of dead-end relationship, the play gives us the officious, presumptive Pozzo (Ed Setrakian) and his slave, the unhinged Lucky (Martin Shakar). Hruska's production falters here. Setrakian's Pozzo has a breezy, smiling inconsequence that drains him of threatening power and belies his hold on Lucky, whose mad slobbering is properly unsettling. For all his oblivious arrogance, Pozzo should have an edge of brutality that explains his place, however precarious, on the leading end of the rope. As it is, his scenes create little more than a sideshow diversion.
This deficit only heightens the sense that Hruska, for all his grip on the play's central partnership, too often loses sight of its larger shape. Neither episodic nor classically constructed, "Godot" nevertheless has an imposing, filigreed architecture and a staggering, poetic rhythm all its own. Even the play's boldest gambit -- the bald-faced repetition of two acts, each with a whimpering nonconclusion -- feels as natural and beautiful, in its despairing way, as the change of seasons.
One can see this in Kenneth Foy's bare disc of a set, anchored by a gnarled, reddish tree and shaped by Paul MillerPaul Miller's dusky lighting, and one can hear it in the disarming feint and parry of the gnomic dialogue. But we don't quite feel the full, anguished blast of Beckett's wintry vision, which is sure to haunt us for at least another 50 years.