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Good Godot 

A slick revival that's neither too close to nor too far from Beckett's original

Wednesday, Nov 12 2003
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American Conservatory Theater mounted a play last season called The Dazzle, about the eccentric brothers Collyer, who died in near-solitude under a legendary mess of old newspapers and antique furniture in their Harlem town house. The show starred Gregory Wallace and Steven Anthony Jones, and the second half played like a site-specific Waiting for Godot -- two guys in bleak circumstances, waiting for something (or nothing), making witty but futile conversation.

The Dazzle was boring, but it must have given someone at ACT the idea of doing Waiting for Godot with Wallace and Jones, who are both black. A cross-racial Godot, in the 50th anniversary year of the play's debut? Why the hell not? That's what Carey Perloff has mounted, with Wallace as Estragon, one of the lead tramps. Jones plays not his partner Vladimir but a slave-driving stranger named Pozzo, so the brotherly rapport they showed in The Dazzle isn't here. But that doesn't matter. Perloff delivers a slick revival that steers between the two hazards of sticking too close to Beckett tradition and getting canned for experiments by the notoriously rigid Beckett Estate.

Wallace plays Estragon ("GoGo") as a gloomy clown. Other critics thought he was too deliberate on opening night, but I saw him a week later when his exaggerations were under control. Wallace has been at risk of self-parody for a couple of seasons at ACT because he seems to have exactly one whining, nasal tone for his comic lines, but in Godot he's broken out of his own mannerisms and found a broader range for both his voice and body. Now he whines when GoGo needs to whine, but also pouts, deplores, growls, and laughs with glee. He gives weight and consideration to each word in a way that Peter Frechette, as Vladimir ("DiDi"), doesn't. Frechette seems to skitter over his lines instead of finding their natural rhythm. He improves in Act 2, though, especially in DiDi's late speech about the grave.

Jones plays a belching, overweening Pozzo, amusingly cruel to his servant Lucky, who from the time he enters never quits quivering like a mortified Chihuahua. Lucky gapes in horror, drools on Pozzo's luggage, and bleeds from rope blisters on his neck. (He wears a noose leash.) Frank Wood plays him beautifully. His trembling makes him the dreadful center of attention as long as Lucky's onstage, turning DiDi and GoGo's impotent jokiness to ash.

J.B. Wilson's set includes a realistic tree and boulder slashed by a clean, sharply angled floating platform to represent Beckett's "country road." An oatmeal-colored backdrop has a wide vertical slot in which a full moon rises. A gold-painted replica of the Geary Theater's own proscenium frames the action, emphasizing that we're Just Watching a Play (thanks for that); the tree looks not like an ordinary bare tree but like a specific bare tree -- a willow -- until it sprouts something like ficus leaves.

In other words, the set amounts to a crisp, witty, but standard interpretation. The program notes are more interesting. The director's mom -- Marjorie Perloff, a Stanford professor emeritus -- makes the case that Godot is not a free-floating abstract play but a distilled, realistic one, drawn from Beckett's experience in the French Resistance during World War II. Beckett traveled within blasted landscapes in France and waited for unknown contacts who may or may not have been alive. He even slept in ditches and picked grapes, like DiDi and GoGo ("We were there together, I could swear to it!" says DiDi. "Picking grapes for a man called -- can't think of the name --"). The idea is that Beckett simply whittled the existence of an anti-Vichy spy into a spare meditation on suffering and (perhaps) God.

This reading has a strong pull. I wish Carey Perloff had done more with it. Her actors are convincing clowns, but the result is not a greater Godot than, say, the ones produced by the Gate Theatre in Dublin or the American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge, Mass. It's just a pretty good Godot, with a tasteful set and nice costumes by Beaver Bauer. Maybe a flat, realistic approach to Beckett's lines -- away from the usual clown routines -- would have discovered something new.

Of course, the Beckett Estate complains about most innovations. Earlier this year Beckett's nephew tried to close another 50th-anniversary Godot because the director had added some music. Five years ago the Estate bullied a cross-racial version in Washington, D.C., not quite for skin color but for what a critic called an "overlay of identity politics and black vaudeville" -- which Perloff's show, in any case, is blessedly free of. Her Godot has the right resonances and the right ambiguities. It prods tradition with Wallace and Jones and -- for better or worse -- makes a clean escape.

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