Cracking a Smile In the Cracked-Up World of 'Godot'

By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 5, 2006

Samuel Beckett, king of comedy? Don't laugh. Well, on second thought, do. You'll have little choice, in fact, if you treat yourself to the wryness of the Gate Theatre of Dublin's agile "Waiting for Godot."

Regularly cited as one of the most important plays of the 20th century, "Godot" is too often handled as if it were just that. And nothing kills fun like importance. Studio Theatre avoided the reverential pitfall with its free-range, hip-hop adaptation of the play eight years ago. But too many other productions take what you might call a taxidermic tack: They seem, misguidedly, to simply want to stuff and mount this absurdist tragicomedy.

The Gate's performers, ensconced in the Kennedy Center's Terrace Theater through a sold-out performance tonight, have an earthier goal: They want us to have a good time. And in the irrepressible countenances of Barry McGovern and Johnny Murphy, who play Beckett's wistful, watchful hobos, Vladimir and Estragon, Beckett's wicked wit is accorded full-time employment.

Under the finely calibrated direction of Walter D. Asmus, "Godot" -- which as fashion dictates is pronounced "GOD-oh" here -- seems an ethereal meditation on, among other things, the curses and privileges of knowing our days must come to an end.

Didi and Gogo, as Vladimir and Estragon call each other, are marooned on an existential plain (or plane) and awaiting with anxiety, trepidation and anticipation instructions from an unseen figure. He may have a white beard, he may use an angelic young boy as his messenger -- and he may or may not ever come.

A messiah or a mirage? A waste of time or a preamble to significant events? Who knows? Didi and Gogo sure don't. The pleasure of "Godot" is not so much in trying to decipher what they're waiting for, as in communing with the ordinary and entirely human routines they engage in to fill their hours in the cosmic waiting room.

Didi and Gogo are equally vital to each other -- as brothers, or old friends, or poker buddies -- in contrast to the more enigmatic pair in "Godot," the master/slave couple of Pozzo (Alan Stanford) and his tethered servant Lucky (Stephen Brennan). Didi and Gogo talk about a comradeship that has lasted decades, and indeed, these sharp Irish actors convince you that this is so.

In some productions, Didi and Gogo seem interchangeable. McGovern and Murphy reveal why that is a miscalculation. The lanky, expressive McGovern gives Didi a more contemplative bearing, the better to embody the more philosophical of the pair. He's also the more nurturing -- the older brother, if you will. No wonder he's the one with the supply of root vegetables in his pockets.

Murphy's Gogo, with stooped shoulders and a hangdog mien, is more childlike, the irritable one in need of reassurance and help in keeping track of his boots.

Indeed, there's something poignant in the production each time McGovern grabs Murphy by the hand and they shuffle off together, rattled by some noise or simply in need of contact at the end of another disappointing day with no sign of Godot.

What passes between them is both tender and funny. And it's principally in McGovern's and Murphy's expressive line readings and precise timing that the gentle, ironic comedy of "Godot" is fully engaged. After Murphy's Gogo makes the bland declaration, "I'll go get a carrot," McGovern knows just how much time to let pass and emphasis to give to, "This is becoming really insignificant."

The buoyant theatricality extends to the entrances of Brennan's yoked Lucky, who's hunched over like a packhorse and guided on a rope by Stanford's whip-brandishing Pozzo. Their relationship is based on a wholly different sort of mutual dependence, with the arrogant Pozzo barking demeaning orders at hapless Lucky.

Stanford brings the requisite bluster and effeteness to Pozzo: He's like some epicurean bully. He will ultimately be engulfed in darkness, perhaps in payback, you come to think, for his obliviousness to suffering.

Brennan's performance is one of subtle physicality. The incessant patter of his tiny footsteps back and forth across the stage as Pozzo barks one ridiculous command after another lands on the ear like anguished forbearance. (Is that just a striped jacket on his back, or the uniform of a camp inmate?) The actor does justice, too, to the geysers of tangled verbiage that erupt from Lucky when he's relieved for a time of his physical labors and ordered by Pozzo to "think!"

The bleak "Godot" landscape, with the bare-limbed tree from which Didi and Gogo contemplate hanging themselves, is faithfully conjured here by Louis le Brocquy, and lighting designer Rupert Murray allows night to fall in stylized fits and starts. A full moon gets its own bravura entrance.

Asmus's sure-footed pacing allows stillness to envelop us, too. When Didi and Gogo are approached by the boy (Devin O'Shea-Farren) who bears the news that Godot will stand them up today, as always, you are made to feel as if the whole Earth has come to a halt. Rarely does aloneness in the universe feel starker.

Waiting for Godot , by Samuel Beckett. Directed by Walter D. Asmus. Approximately 2 hours 25 minutes. Through today at Kennedy Center Terrace Theater. Call 202-467-4600 or visit .

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