On January 3, 1956, the Coconut Grove Playhouse opened its doors for the first time with a European tragicomedy, overzealously billed by its American producer as the "laugh sensation of two continents." Tennessee Williams and Walter Winchell attended the premiere. Actors Bert Lahr and Tom Ewell were on-stage. And two-thirds of the audience walked out by the end of act one. Samuel Beckett's 1953 absurdist classic Waiting for Godot did not strike a sympathetic chord with members of the local crowd who, as one critic noted, were "more in the mood for Guys and Dolls." The debacle inspired Lahr to quip that "playing Waiting for Godot in Miami was like doing Giselle at Roseland."
Of course, that was then. This is now. Four decades later Coconut Grove Playhouse has mounted a playful and marvelously acted, if at times slow-paced, revival of Godot to commemorate the theater's 40th anniversary. Surely Miami audiences, exposed over the years to Beckett-influenced dramatists such as Edward Albee, Tom Stoppard, Harold Pinter, and David Mamet, have the sophistication to sit through this two-act exploration of being and nothingness. And yet again some opening-night audience members left before its conclusion. Apparently the pleasures of Beckett remain as elusive today as they were when the master of dramatic minimalism first gained international recognition in the Fifties. Beckett, the late Nobel Prize-winning Irish dramatist and novelist who lived most of his adult life in Paris and who composed his major works in French, probably would have shrugged. According to his biographer, Deirdre Bair, the playwright believed that "a theater empty of all but the most serious playgoers presented an ideal condition for a performance of his own work."
In fairness to Miami audiences then and now, Waiting for Godot is not for everyone. In it, as in all of his writings, Beckett eschews a recognizable story line. In fact, through the unfulfilled yearnings and obsessions of his characters, he parodies our very human desire for what traditional storytelling offers: meaning, catharsis, and redemption. Instead of an easy-to-follow plot, Beckett offers unrelenting (and often nonsensical) dialogue between four characters, during which nothing much happens except the passing of time. In act one, Vladimir and Estragon wait for Monsieur Godot on the side of a road near a mound of dirt and a single tree; Godot never arrives. As they presumably have done throughout the 50 years they've spent together, the two men trade insults, indulge in role playing, riff through word and mind games, encounter two other men -- a landowner named Pozzo and his servile companion Lucky -- threaten to leave each other, agree to leave with each other, and ultimately stay where they are. In act two, they do it all over again.
While Beckett may have chosen to skimp on plot in Godot, the play reveals his brilliant vision of relationships. In the ambivalence and dependency that characterize Vladimir and Estragon's partnership, and in the sadomasochistic dynamics between Pozzo and Lucky, Beckett offers a hilariously caricatured -- yet accurate -- depiction of human interaction that is both unsentimental and compassionate. Director Luke Yankee understands that relationships are central to Beckett's tour de force; by concentrating on them, and, at times, on the way that the characters avoid them, Yankee makes accessible the play's abstract elements. It's hard not to squirm when Estragon and Vladimir cajole, wheedle, reject, manipulate, and lean on one another, or when Pozzo abuses Lucky, because we recognize ourselves all too well. (As universal and conceptual as Godot comes across, Beckett supposedly based the characters of Vladimir and Estragon on his own long-term relationship and ultimate marriage to Suzanne Deschevaux-Dumesnil and, in particular, on their shared experience living in hiding near the Spanish border as part of the French Resistance during World War II.)
The casting for this revival of Godot was not finalized until three weeks before opening night, necessitating hasty rehearsals. The actor originally slated to play Lucky took ill, and Alan Mandell slid into the role hours before the first curtain went up. And on Saturday night before the Sunday press opening, Reni Santoni (Estragon) broke his wrist while on-stage. With his wrist still too swollen to be set in a cast, Santoni portrayed Estragon with his arm in a sling -- as if the role were written to be played that way. (Santoni has a recurring role as Poppie on Seinfeld, a situation comedy characterized by its creators as being about nothing.) Alternately sullen and mischievous, Santoni's restless Estragon complements Luis Avalos's anguished Vladimir; along with that anguish, Avalos convincingly imbues Vladimir with a surprising amount of affection and vulnerability.
Kenneth Mars roars onto the stage as a frighteningly pompous Pozzo and maintains this intensity, even when he's felled by blindness in act two. But the production really scores with Mandell. Reportedly, the actor has played Lucky four other times, twice in productions directed by Beckett; his facility with the part is clear, especially in his splendid delivery of Lucky's ruminative monologue in act one. The accomplished ensemble plays its respective parts across a spare, earth-toned patch of land and against a smudged backdrop of sky. Created by designer Steve Lambert with lighting by Todd Wren, the set reinforces the sense of a nameless place that Beckett wanted to evoke.