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TELEVISION REVIEW

Waiting for 'Godot's' humor

PBS' film version of Beckett's meditation on the human condition doesn't get the joke.

December 31, 2002|Daryl H. Miller | Times Staff Writer

New Year's Day is, traditionally, a day for taking stock. And what better way to do that than to spend a couple of hours pondering the pointlessness of human existence?

OK, maybe that's not what PBS had in mind when it scheduled a new film version of Samuel Beckett's "Waiting for Godot" for Wednesday night at 9:30 on KCET and KVCR. But there's no avoiding that philosophical quandary in the play that was introduced in the Irish playwright's adopted home of Paris in January 1953.

It is the play's 50th birthday that explains its scheduling as part of the "Stage on Screen" series. The program follows the September airing of "Beckett on Film," a presentation of seven short plays that -- along with "Godot" -- are part of an Irish-based project to film all 19 of Beckett's stage works.

Unfortunately, there's a damper on this birthday party, since "Godot" -- filmed by Michael Lindsay-Hogg, based on a Gate Theatre of Dublin staging that played at UCLA in 2000 -- is a decidedly mixed success.

On the plus side: Hearing Beckett's lines filtered through the accents of Irish actors Barry McGovern and Johnny Murphy helps to connect the play's humor, hope and despair with the Irish literary tradition that is so rich in those qualities.

But too often, this blank, listless film doesn't seem to get the joke. Chuckles are few and far between, even though much of "Godot" is a clown show.

The setting, at least, looks right: A desolate path alongside a rock pile crowned by a lone, barren tree.

Nothing -- and everything -- happens here as a pair of tramps wait for the mysterious Godot, who never shows up. As the two acts unfold over separate days, Vladimir (McGovern) and Estragon (Murphy) say and do much the same things, suggesting that they are caught in a dull, unvarying loop.

For this reason, the play is considered a cornerstone of theater for the absurd, which meditates on the essential absurdity of the human condition.

But listen closely to the tramps' brief, elliptical exchanges. Aren't these miniature discourses on religion, psychology, sustenance, companionship, endurance, death and more?

And what to make of the appearance of the cultured but harsh master, Pozzo (Alan Stanford), and his careworn slave, Lucky (Stephen Brennan)? Aren't they embodiments of the class system, of capitalism, of man's inhumanity to man?

McGovern invests Vladimir with intelligence and kindness, while demonstrating, through subtle facial variations, the epic battle between optimism and despondency taking place in his mind. Murphy's Estragon is less cerebral and more corporal, making him the more obviously clownish of the pair.

Every once in a while, Lindsay-Hogg and cinematographer Seamus Deasy take the camera overhead for a God's-eye view of the action -- one of the more inspired aspects of the filming.

*

'Waiting for Godot'

Where: KCET and KVCR

When: Wednesday, 9:30 p.m.

Rating: TV-PG (may be unsuitable for younger children)

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