It's been 60 years since Samuel Beckett's two down-and-out tramps first set foot upon the stage in "Waiting for Godot," bewildering audiences as they passed the time and anticipated the arrival of a gentleman who never showed up. Now, of course, the play is considered a classic of 20th-century absurdist theater and is widely regarded as the Nobel Prize-winning Irish playwright's masterpiece.
And those two tramps? They're still waiting, this time out in space.
The fine Gare St Lazare Players Ireland production playing at the Paramount Center Mainstage unfolds on a bleak lunar landscape, a simple gray circular platform pocked with crags and craters. Director Judy Hegarty Lovett seems to suggest that the characters — and by extension all mankind — might as well be men on the moon, playing an endless waiting game in an inescapable place.
In this production, fresh from the Dublin Theatre Festival and produced in association with ArtsEmerson, the two tramps play off each other like an old slapstick comedy team. Conor Lovett is grounded as Vladimir, all gaunt and buttoned-up, with a smooth, angular face shaped like "The Scream." Gary Lydon's Estragon is a ruddy-faced bumbler, a stocky, splay-footed fellow forever fretting about his feet. The two actors are at their best in the comic moments, dancing jerkily one minute and insulting each other the next. Their timing is impeccable when performing the one-word volleys in the second act. Beckett originally wrote the play in French, but when his English translation is spoken with the rhythmic lilt of his native land, the stark beauty of the language sings.
The production stalls a bit in the first act, when the two hobos encounter the master and slave team of Pozzo and Lucky. As Pozzo, Gavan O'Herlihy is a thundering bombast whose American accent is jarring. It's not clear whether this is an attempt to make some sort of statement (your guess is as good as mine), but O'Herlihy holds forth in a way that rings false to the rest of the production. But Tadhg Murphy's Lucky is both heartbreaking and heartening. Head down, he shuffles on flat feet, and he makes the character's stream-of-consciousness monologue his own. His hands wave like wings, and his head darts back and forth. He spits out nonsensical phrases like "quaquaquaqua" with conviction before falling flat, like an electronic toy with batteries that have run out of juice.
The husband and wife team of Lovett and Hegarty Lovett have devoted their careers to interpreting Beckett's work, usually with Lovett performing the quieter solo pieces like "The End" (a stark, moving production that I saw a few years ago at Fitchburg State University). Their Beckett is by the book. They don't stray from Beckett's strict, spare stage directions, but they do add their own stamp to "Godot." Ferdia Murphy's set does feature that famous lone tree, but this one is hanging from the rafters, uprooted from the earth. The lighting is by Sinead McKenna, and when the moon glows at the end of each act, it is a perfect reflection of the lunar landscape onstage. The double spheres illustrate the circular nature of the play, which goes around and around.
The two tramps have been around a bit themselves, and they wistfully remember picking grapes on the Rhone and standing at the top of the Eiffel Tower. In one defining moment, Lovett's Vladimir gently sings as Lydon's Estragon sleeps. He takes off his tattered coat and drapes it over his partner's shoulders. That poignancy does not sustain itself throughout the production, and at times, I wished for a deeper sense of desperation. But when the Boy (played with a perfect innocence by Connor Thomas Upton) appears with the inevitable news at the end, Lovett erupts.
In the end, he and his partner are left, yet again, with nothing to do but create the impression they exist. They've been doing that now for 60 years, and they likely will be doing it again and again for 60 years hence.
Patti Hartigan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.