Felt and Unfelt

When Waiting for Godot arrived in America in 1956, even amid the glossy materialism of boom-time suburbia its barren landscape seemed a natural reflection of the barren spiritual landscape of the era. What made Godot's influence spread with such amazing ease and rapidity was its success at merging the metaphysical and the fleshly; Eric Bentley, always on the point, made the astute remark that intellectuals had been rhapsodizing about the music hall for years, but that this was the first time anyone had done anything practical about it. In those days, highbrows were appalled when the play's first American producer marketed it as "the laugh sensation of two continents"; today the reviewers whimper that the current revival isn't funny enough. How dialectically time flies.

True, Andrei Belgrader's star-laden production is only intermittent in its laugh-getting, and even more so in its arousal of the pity and terror which are the other side of Beckett's darkly comic coin. In an ideal production of Godot, you might laugh loudest at the greatest moments of anguish and weep most at the openly comic exchanges—or vice versa; the two elements interpenetrate each other, like the philosophy and the carnality. The pain and the humor of existence are inseparable, like the meaning of life and the stench of old shoes.

Not that any of this means much to Belgrader, who, to judge by his staging, is a theatricalist first and last, interested in the play mainly as a structure. Each of Beckett's acts begins with an entrance that reunites the two tramps; Belgrader omits these launching pads for the inaction to follow. In his version, both Estragon and Vladimir are onstage at the start of each act, unnoticed by each other, stage clowns whose offstage existence is a mere form of words. Inevitably, any imagined reality that might serve as a basis for genuinely deep laughter or pain is ruled out. Estragon has been beaten up, and spent the night in a ditch, but John Turturro is bruiseless, his legs beautifully clean when he rolls up his pants. Similarly, the bladder ailment that gives Vladimir such agony when he laughs is a matter Tony Shalhoub only seems to remember when it's mentioned in the lines. With so much of their grounding shorn away, the characters become merely comic archetypes going through their eternal paces again, and archetypes don't die; it's their temporary residence in those impermanent creatures called humans that makes them funny—and meaningful.

From left, Richard Spore, John Turturro, Tony Shalhoub, and Christopher Lloyd in Waiting for Godot: the light gleams an instant, then it’s night once more.
Dixie Sheridan
From left, Richard Spore, John Turturro, Tony Shalhoub, and Christopher Lloyd in Waiting for Godot: the light gleams an instant, then it’s night once more.

Details

Waiting for Godot
By Samuel Beckett
Classic Stage Company
135 East 13th Street
677-4210

The Ride Down Mt. Morgan
By Arthur Miller
Joseph Papp Public Theater
425 Lafayette Street
260-2400

Under these circumstances, there isn't much a cast can do, except snatch a laugh here or a tender piece of word-painting there. Neither Turturro nor Shalhoub has the age and world-weariness of these downtrodden journeyers, who keep saying they've been together "fifty years." The lack is particularly hard on Shalhoub, a forceful, appetitive actor who seems wholly unconnected to Vladimir's inward, obsessive musings on death. Turturro, at least, has little flashes of fiendish energy that light up Estragon's sudden seizures of enthusiasm.

Neither of them engages strongly with Christopher Lloyd's Pozzo, the most intriguingly eccentric of the four performances. Lloyd's fascination as an actor comes from his being hard to "track" onstage. His Pozzo is a kaleidoscope of shifting interpretations, now effetely genteel, now brutal, now childish, now grandiosely oily like a medicine-show pitchman. It never makes sense, but its peculiarity keeps you guessing, which in some respects fits the role as written; Pozzo is a person who does not add up.

Unluckiest of all is Richard Spore's Lucky, obliged to carry out Belgrader's worst piece of self-defeating cleverness during the huge speech that's the fulcrum of his role. The idea, I guess, is to render the speech as a parody of academic fake-serious Beckett readings, with Spore upstage, reciting solemnly, at a plodding pace that trudges any glimmer of sense or interest out of the fascinatingly jumbled text. The reactions of his three hearers are suppressed till the very last moment: Here, as elsewhere, Belgrader plays fast and loose with Beckett's stage directions. Another particularly galling instance is the second Boy scene, when Vladimir's betrayal of the sleeping Estragon, carefully set off with hesitations and pauses in the script, is breezed through with no hint of its significance. But that's the way this Godot runs. Its waiting is done on a bland middle level, touched up by bright spots and shadows from the actors, but far from the highs and lows the play's richness can provide. Beckett's most miraculous merger of opposites, perhaps, was to make a text so sparse hold such a lavish density of meanings. Belgrader seems to have seen only the sparseness.

Arthur Miller, on the other hand, heaps the lavishness high with The Ride Down Mt. Morgan, and heaps it over and over again. Through the repetitions, the drama inches forward, at a crawl even slower than the tempo of Lucky's speech at the CSC. Miller's hero is Lyman Felt, an immigrant deli owner's son who has become a millionaire insurance executive. No low man (or Loman), he now lies in an upstate hospital bed, having smashed up his car on an icy mountain road—perhaps deliberately, since a mis-aimed phone call to his next of kin has revealed that Lyman is a lie-man, simultaneously married to two women, with a child by each. His high-strung Manhattan wife of 32 years thinks his frequent visits upstate are to supervise a branch of his firm; his fun-loving spouse of eight years in Elmira thinks he got a Reno divorce when she announced her pregnancy. The wives are at the edge of breakdown, the kids are experiencing major deprivation trauma, the tabloids are having a field day, and Lyman is—well, he's being an Arthur Miller hero, of a kind frequent since After the Fall, confessional in a manner that flatters the ego more than it bares the soul.

Miller has said that the play, first produced in London seven years ago, was written in response to the selfishness of the Reagan era, but it has no more to do with that than it has with Clinton's cigar box. All it says morally is that a dishonest man can be a charmer. This isn't exactly hot news, and Miller has, disquietingly, structured his play to go no further. At the end, wife A has a version of that breakdown, wife B storms out spluttering vows of revenge and legal action, and Lyman is left alone at last, to begin figuring out what he has and hasn't really felt all this time.

This would be a workable action for a half-hour one-act, but Miller has padded it to a full evening with repeated displays, in speech or flashback, of Lyman's charm as a seducer and prowess as a cocksman. Instead of indicting or confronting the hero's self-aggrandizement, Miller abets the
audience's sneaking fondness for it. His victims, meanwhile, are downplayed: Wife A is a conventional well-bred killjoy, wife B only a few steps above the usual Hollywood idea of a with-it other woman. Wife A's grown daughter is a whining bifurcated stream of need and resentment; wife B's son is unseen. Yet Miller has fun letting Lyman score off his stooges, winning even the arguments he's already lost with sly grins and hangdog admissions of guilt. Though tiresome in its reiterations, the play is full of bright patches and twistily actable moments. David Esbjornson's direction allows his two leads, Patrick Stewart (Lyman) and Frances Conroy (wife A), to make the most of them. Warmly assured and smiling, Stewart makes Lyman all endearing innocence, wisely leaving the script to tell you the dirty truth; it's a big, convincing, well-sustained performance. Conroy, who's coming into her richest period yet as an actress, doesn't let even a phrase ring false, sketching the character's limits without ever seeming pinched either vocally or emotionally herself.

Their strength is all the more important, given some iffy support: Kali Rocha finds only whine in the daughter's needy, resentful soul, while Meg Gibson's emotionally smudgy, scattered performance as the second wife is a constant irritation. Esbjornson makes a few nice images of the chaos in Lyman's mind, but the metal bars of John Arnone's set suggest ominously that we, not the characters, are trapped in all this unfelt (or unFelt) talk.

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