Godot's Country

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.

The first act of this Godot contains a few too many long pauses. And ultimately, Beckett works best in a smaller, more intimate setting than the Playhouse's 1100-seat mainstage theater. Yet, while this production will not go down in history as the play's definitive version, its wit and intelligence should delight those with a taste for Beckett's cerebral gymnastics.

Far less decipherable than Waiting for Godot is Kevin Heelan's 1994 The Hope Zone, making its South Florida debut at Hollywood Boulevard Theatre in Hollywood after a run at Circle Rep in New York City. To his credit, Heelan attempts to tackle the prickly subject of addiction by paralleling the private world of struggling drug users and drinkers with the supportive haven of 12-step-program meetings. Unfortunately, he packs enough melodrama into his convoluted narrative to supply your favorite soap opera with a year's worth of story lines.

In a small hotel left to her in a divorce settlement, Countess (just a name, apparently, and not a title) has set up a recovery facility for alcoholics. There she ministers to a flock of disaffected outcasts who, like herself, struggle with shaky sobriety and low self-esteem. These include the runaway wife of a philandering senator, a grease monkey versed in the healing art of snake handling, and a former cop turned cook who runs the snack bar and sleeps with Countess (Ellen Simmons). Into this menagerie walks Countess's daughter Maureen (portrayed by Susan Vanech, Simmons's real-life daughter). An alcoholic intravenous drug-using single mother who shoplifts, Maureen wants to hand over her son to Countess for safekeeping. Nix to that. Countess wants Maureen to attend AA meetings and go straight. Maureen screws up. Accusations fly. It seems Countess once had her own son who, the script intimates, died as a result of his mother's drunken neglect. Threats, a fistfight, and writhing on the floor ensue. Meanwhile, Countess's lover decides to leave her. But she's too busy trying to save Maureen with tough love to care. When that doesn't work, she drinks Maureen's blood in order to save her. . . .

Don't ask.
Okay, okay. So playwrights such as Tennessee Williams and Eugene O'Neill were melodrama queens. But their plots soared through poetic language. In contrast, Heelan mires this work in an almost incomprehensible patois of tortured syntax, preposterous phrases, and self-help psychobabble. The actors do not stand a chance of connecting with the characters they play or with each other because their mouths are so full of the gravel that passes for authentic speech. Try negotiating these lines:

"The weather said there's a whole new freezingness coming in."
"In consequence of that tongue of his he made an idiot of me."
"The minutes ran out on me with her."
"Call me for a 12-step."

Somehow, Heelan has garnered a reputation for giving voice to characters who might not otherwise have a chance to speak (I've never seen his other plays). For example, 1986's Distant Fires explores racism on a construction site, and 1979's Split Decision tells the story of a once great black prizefighter trying to get out of the sport in one piece. And according to the play's program notes, the playwright has been commissioned to adapt Common Ground, J. Anthony Lukas's book about the school busing crisis in Boston in the Seventies, for the stage in Los Angeles. But for me, the writing in The Hope Zone provides no basis for such a reputation.

Stage Whispers
As any mother of a young child will tell you through the haze of her habitual exhaustion, finding time for professional work while raising a kid requires creative scheduling. Actors Stephanie Heller Norman and Elena Wohl and playwright Susan Westfall, all moms with kids under age three, believe they've found the perfect solution for pursuing their professional passions. They've teamed up to create City Theatre, a new company that will produce Summer Shorts, a three-week festival of twelve one-act plays. Featuring all new works, each of which will be ten minutes long or less, Summer Shorts will premiere from June 21 through July 7 at the University of Miami's newly renovated Jerry Herman Ring Theatre.

"The idea of doing something that's short and sweet fits with the working-mother time schedule," laughs Westfall. But the partners initiated the project for other reasons, as well. "South Florida has never done a festival of shorts before," Westfall points out, citing a tradition of such programs in theaters around the U.S., from the Met in L.A. to Woolly Mammoth in Washington, D.C., to Ensemble Studio Theatre in New York. "We also want to do something lively, entertaining, accessible, and affordable in the summer. We literally want people to come to the theater in their shorts. And we want to showcase a lot of talent in one place. The idea is to put five or six pieces up [each night] with fifteen actors, and generate a lot of energy."

The producers issued a call for new scripts to local and national writers. Westfall concedes that the company has received more responses from outside Miami than from writers in their own back yard. "The literary manager at [Actors' Theatre of] Louisville has been sending us things or making recommendations," Westfall notes. "We have pieces from [playwrights] Jeffrey Sweet and David Ives. But we would like to see local representation. If there are writers out there who have ten-minute scripts, submit them to us. We're interested in bilingual material, African-American writers. We're looking for good short plays that are going to be fully produced."

Send scripts, no more than fifteen pages long, to 1450 S. Bayshore Dr., suite 811, Miami, FL 33131, by April 15. For more information, call 446-9289.

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