Samuel Beckett sets his seminal 1953 absurdist tragicomedy aside a country road, where nothing grows but a single tree—which may be dead. Vladimir and Estragon, the Chaplinesque tramps who've waited here for days, or maybe years, for the ever-deferred arrival of the unknowable savior Mr. Godot, have never encountered anyone, save the buffoonish windbag Pozzo, who allegedly owns the land, and his mostly silent servant Lucky. There's nothing to do but wait, and nothing to eat but a few stray root vegetables Estragon digs out of his pockets. Wherever they're supposed to be, it's clear they're in the middle of nowhere.
In director Ron OJ Parson's intriguing but inconclusive production for Court Theatre, the tramps spend their time in the middle of somewhere quite specific. A well-tended sidewalk and a seemingly freshly poured concrete curb delimit their world, which amounts to a patch of low grass and a scrawny tree. The street beyond the curb has been exactingly excavated, creating a massive sinkhole between stage and audience. We're no longer in the middle of nowhere; we're in a vacant lot in a depopulated city.
The setting, carefully rendered by scenic designer Courtney O'Neill, adds a valuable resonance to Parson's decision to cast only African-American actors in this Godot. Placing a pair of idle, disheveled, threadbare black men on a street corner invokes narratives about urban poverty and homelessness, about a world where the promise of redemption, or at least escape, is perpetually on hold. While this recasting of Beckett's stage world is problematic thematically—Beckett's stasis is existential, while the trap of homelessness and poverty springs from specific economic, cultural, and political forces the play can't address—it does allow a contemporary vibrancy to disrupt an ossified modern classic.
But the design is problematic in a more fundamental way. One telling detail—the length of the grass—turns this stage world incoherent. If we're in a depopulated city, as everything throughout the nearly three-hour production suggests, who's cutting the grass? Is it the same landscaping service that's keeping the sidewalk neatly edged? And if we're on the corner of a city block, what to make of Estragon's insistence that they're in "Cackon country," where he and Vladimir once worked picking grapes? While Beckett sets his play in the middle of nowhere, Parson sets his in a place that makes no sense.
This inattentiveness to detail mars the production in myriad ways, most crucially in the relationship between Estragon and Vladimir. The two men have been together for at least 50 years, yet here they seem relative strangers. That's mostly because Parson allows Alfred H. Wilson as Estragon and Allen Gilmore as Vladimir to adopt diametrically opposed acting styles. Gilmore is highly animated, hyperarticulate and deeply engaged with the script's underpinnings. With his rubbery physicality, exacting diction, and infinitely mournful eyes, he's an exuberant combination of Richard Pryor and Stan Laurel. Wilson, on the other hand, wanders haphazardly through his role, glossing over important details, largely disengaged with anything below the surface of the text. The actors appear to be in two different plays.
As a result, they create little sense of history between them, and perhaps as importantly, no sense of routine. And nothing's more important to the success of Godot than routine. Not only have the characters fallen into an intractable routine of waiting at the same spot all day, every day, but they are also vaudeville clowns performing their old, stale routines. Beckett's decision to dress his characters in the style of Charlie Chaplin's Little Tramp was no accident, and at key moments he reminds the audience we're watching performers onstage: when Vladimir needs to run offstage to pee, Estragon directs him to "the end of the corridor, on the left" (it's a line that barely registers in this production). Beckett's fascination with routine speaks volumes about his view of humanity; we're bumbling fools stuck in a universe unsuited to our needs, yet we press on in our pathetic, habitual ways. Here, instead of routine we get overworked bits and shtick.
But this production's greatest oversight involves the play's most basic truth. Despite the play's title, and the characters' repeated insistences that they're waiting for Godot, the production never creates a palpable sense that anyone's waiting for anything. Vladimir and Estragon kill a lot of time, but they're never anticipating the hoped-for event that will, in Vladimir's mind at least, save them. If they don't particularly care whether Godot comes, why should we?