South Coast Repertory's revival of "Waiting for Godot" would seem to have everything going for it: consummate actors, top-notch designers and a director not only sensitive to nuance but privy to Samuel Beckett's personal notes for staging his mid-Century masterwork.
Given these advantages, the production should have scintillated. Yet on opening night Friday, despite all the talent deployed on the SCR Second Stage, this "Godot" was too often punctilious in execution and flat in tone. Theatergoers hoping for something more inspired were liable to feel a nagging sense of disappointment.
Crucially missing from the production was the very resonance that gives the play its amplitude. As an existential clown show about the catastrophe of the human condition, Beckett's text elevates Didi (Hal Landon Jr.) and Gogo (Richard Doyle) from ordinary tramps to universal Everymen. Both are considerably funnier and bleaker on paper than what we got in performance.
Landon and Doyle delivered such narrowly literal portrayals of these bowler-hatted, foul-smelling, slapstick lowlifes that they almost succeeded in eclipsing the larger significance of their roles. They seemed to be acting completely on the surface, with no implied subtext whatsoever, presumably according to Martin Benson's direction. (Perhaps working from Beckett's notes was not much of an advantage for him after all.)
Didi and Gogo eat, pace, argue, embrace and, with the usual gallows humor, consider suicide while waiting for the never-arriving Godot. (The name rhymes with Otto in this production. Benson, claiming authenticity, wants his actors to pronounce it just as Beckett did.) Typically, however, the melancholy loneliness that is one of the play's hallmarks escapes them totally. Though they speak of their anguish and desperation, we aren't touched. As for the dry cosmic ironies of their customary vaudeville banter, they too seem strangely muted.
It's hard to believe the downsizing of Didi and Gogo is anything but deliberate, and yet the shrinkage results in a striking dislocation. When the pair encounters Pozzo (Ron Boussom), the pompous slavemaster who is on his way to the market to sell his exhausted slave, Lucky (Don Took), Pozzo doesn't just overshadow them. He virtually obliterates them.
Boussom, with shaved head, bearded chin and flashing eyes, gives a bravura performance in a showy role full of stentorian bluster. Suddenly "Waiting for Godot" is all about the brutal Pozzo. He's much more interesting than Didi and Gogo. Too much so, it turns out, because his departure is a huge letdown. Besides taking his slave with him, he takes most of the evening's entertainment as well.
I'd rather have followed this cruel dandy off stage to see what he was up to--especially if it meant another chance to watch the elaborate ceremony of his enthronement on a nicely placed, canvas-bottomed folding stool--than stick around listening to the bloodless refrains of inexplicably demoted minor leaguers like Didi and Gogo, who don't even have the dignity of their drollness.
Took brings Lucky briefly to incandescent life with an enigmatic, outsized aria of near-operatic fury. Otherwise Lucky is heard gasping in a state of more or less suspended animation--a tall, reed-thin figure sagging under the weight of Pozzo's bags. In white pancake makeup, Took looks like a catatonic creature from a sunless world. His red-rimmed eyes speak silent volumes of suffering.
The spare set, painted bluish-gray, has an abstract look and consists of wood-planked flooring, a rock and a bare Y-shaped tree that sprouts three leaves in the second act. Lighting is purposely harsh for bright day. But when evening is required, a palette of crepuscular colors comes into play, and the moon rises with cartoonish glee. The realistic costumes are also impeccable.
'WAITING FOR GODOT'
A South Coast Repertory presentation of the play by Samuel Beckett. Directed by Martin Benson. Scenic design by Michael Devine. Costumes by Dwight Richard Odle. Lighting by Tom Ruzika. With Richard Doyle, Hal Landon Jr., Don Took, Ron Boussom (and Nolan Yates alternating with Murray Brown). Through April 11 at SCR Second Stage, 655 Town Center Dr., Costa Mesa. Performances Tuesdays to Fridays at 8 p.m.; Saturdays at 2:30 and 8 p.m.; Sundays at 2:30 and 7:30 p.m. $23 to $32. (714) 957-4033. Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes.