Volume 18 • Issue 28 | Nov. 25 - Dec. 2, 2005

By Samuel Beckett
Directed by Alan Hruska
Through January 15
Theatre at St. Clement’s
423 West 46th Street
(212) 239-6200

Photo by Joan Marcus

Sam Coppola as Estragon and Joseph Ragno as Vladimir in Alan Hruska’s 50th anniversary staging of “Waiting for Godot.”

Worth the wait (more or less)

By Jerry Tallmer

I don’t know whether Samuel Beckett ever saw the great old American vaudeville team of Smith & Dale or, more likely, some British music hall equivalent. In any event, what’s being billed as “the 50th anniversary production” of “Waiting for Godot” at the Theatre at St. Clement’s goes back, more or less happily for all of us, to those marvelous old vaudeville roots.

One says “more or less” because of the more, the two characters that are right on the beam—the Estragon (or Gogo) of Joseph Ragno, the Vladimir (or Didi) of Sam Coppola—while the other two are somewhat less than that.

In their time-tested, Loew’s-Keith-Orpheum, Jewish-Irish-Italian, up-from-the-stoops-and-sidewalks New Yorkese—think Cagney, Cantor, or Bobby Clark—Coppola, and Ragno in particular, are just what the Dr. Kronkheit ordered.

Coppola as Didi, the tall, thoughtful, and (God save us) intellectual one—Didi who packs all human existence into “Astride of a grave and a difficult birth … Down in the hole, lingeringly, the gravedigger puts on the forceps”—emanates visual and other overtones of the late Rodney Dangerfield, among others.

Ragno as Gogo, the short, stumpy, hard-beset, elemental, baggy-pants-dropping one—Gogo who suggests suicide by hanging because it might spur an erection, but who also asks: “What’ll we do now? Now that we are happy?”—is blessed with the intonations and furies of Moe of the Three Stooges, Professor Irwin Corey, Jimmy Durante, and a thousand other street-seasoned comics, bless him.

This fortunate keystone-combination casting by director Alan Hruska does much to restore the balance of the “Godot” that was, in its Broadway premier in 1956, overweighed by Bert Lahr’s much-loved patented clowning as Gogo.

Trouble is, not as much can be said for the gentleman who, in Beckett’s words, should enter with a bellow (in “terrifying voice”) of “I am Pozzo … PPPOZZO!” as he cracks his whip and snaps the rope that leads to the throat of Lucky the slave—collapsing, baggage-carrying “Lucky.”

Unfortunately, Ed Satrakian as Pozzo, at least for me, lacks the pomp and bluster of the two-bit tyrant who will reenter blind and helpless in Act II. This Pozzo isn’t Dick Cheney or George C. Scott, he’s Dick Cavett pretending to be those guys.

One of the great roles in theater, in the right hands, is that of Lucky, i.e., mankind agonistes. Martin Shakar is passable when Lucky just has to shudder and wobble and weep in his tracks, or even when Pozzo commands him to dance for the edification of Gogo and Didi, but the moment the slave has to finally open his mouth to deliver the long, astonishing, pregnant-with-implications soliloquy that starts: “Given the existence as uttered forth in the public works of Puncher and Wattman …”—as soon as the show at St. Clement’s hits that point, everything goes galley west.

This Lucky doesn’t rattle off those words, he glides into them like snakeskin. It’s too fancy, too elegant, too ornate. It isn’t being, it’s acting. And then, at the peroration, the windup, Mr. Shakar’s Lucky works himself into a frenzy. He—Jesus, save us (since Jesus lies at the center of Beckett’s masterpiece)— he emotes.

Yet despite any of the above, it is good to have “Godot” back with us once again, and there is much in Alan Hruska’s staging to admire and enjoy. His precisioned timing, for instance, of the old burlesque passing-the-hat routines that Bill Irwin and David Shiner also celebrated in their “Fool Moon.” Or the tiny little miserable carrot on which Gogo is allowed to nibble in Act I. Or, speaking of hats, the way Gogo’s battered relic dangles back and forth from his fingertips in demonstration of suicide by hanging.

But I don’t know why Pozzo’s topper is not a stage-worthy stovepipe, but the same kind of Derby as Gogo’s and Didi’s. I don’t know why in Act II the fallen Pozzo and Lucky seem to lie around on the ground forever, only to be joined down there by Gogo and Didi as forever stretches into unintended eternity. (A failure of directorial ingenuity?) I don’t know why in Act II the barren tree’s one green leaf—its new leaf—has turned into one brown leaf. Signifying death, I guess. But we knew that.

Stop quibbling, critic! Mr. Godot, as the messenger boy (Tanner Rich) calls him, is maybe never going to come, not at least while the gravedigger with the forceps is still waiting around for all of us, but “Waiting for Godot” is back again in an acceptable, watchable production—more or less. And the more, that keystone combination of Ragno and Coppola, is better, far better, than nothing.


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