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Steve Martin and Robin Williams in ‘Waiting for Godot’ at Lincoln Center

November 7, 1988 GMT

NEW YORK (AP) _ On a desolate, nightmarish landscape strewn with rubbish and guarded by the barren, gnarled skeleton of an old tree, sits a shabby, soiled man.

He is joined by an equally dirty and desperate companion who attempts to make some sense out of their existence in this inhospitable environment.

We are in the uncertain, often bleak, often funny world of Samuel Beckett, and the two men - Vladimir and Estragon - are ″Waiting for Godot,″ a mysterious person who never does arrive.

It’s the only thing you can be sure of in Beckett’s enigmatic masterpiece which opened Sunday in an all-star revival at Lincoln Center’s Mitzi Newhouse Theater.

″Star″ is the operative word in this production and the reason the revival is sold out for the rest of its run which ends Nov. 27. It’s no accident that each of the play’s two acts starts with a drum roll and clash of cymbals.

This ″Waiting for Godot″ has two of the country’s biggest comic talents - Steve Martin and Robin Williams - playing Beckett’s memorable tramps. They are joined by Academy Award-winning actor F. Murray Abraham and clown Bill Irwin as the archetypal master and servant Pozzo and Lucky. Lukas Haas is the young messenger from the unseen Godot.

What the austere Beckett would make of them is anybody’s guess, but the playwright’s love of classic comedians is well known. After all, Bert Lahr starred in the original Broadway production of ″Godot″ in 1956, and Beckett once wrote a film script for Buster Keaton.

This revival, directed in high style and plenty of show biz glitz by Mike Nichols, certainly has its quota of giggles, yocks and even belly laughs. At the production’s last preview, theatergoers sounded as if they were lapping up Neil Simon’s latest laughfest rather than Beckett’s metaphysical musings.

Many in the audience came for the stars, not the play, and they weren’t disappointed.

The scruffy Williams, sporting a beard and shaggy hair, is a brilliant improviser and has a strong stage presence. His Estragon is a maniacal creature, verging out of control at times, but he can get a laugh out of the simplest of stage business, such as pulling off a boot or trying to eat a raw carrot.

But he veers into some stage antics and line twistings that Beckett never would have dreamed of - giving hilarious imitations of such diverse cultural icons as R2D2 and John Wayne, complete with an improvised machine gun. Nichols should supply the stage manager with a net when things start to get too wild.

The gray-bearded Martin has a tougher assignment playing the subdued, almost straight man Vladimir to Williams’ more flamboyant Estragon. He doesn’t quite succeed. Martin is a bit bland, fading at times into Tony Walton’s mesmerizing setting of white sand. His voice is colorless, too, rarely rising above a monotone. Martin seems almost complacent and without that desperation needed to convey the author’s sense of futility about life.

The unnerving expression of that futility is left to Abraham and Irwin in the secondary roles of Pozzo and Lucky. Abraham gives a bizarre, idiosyncratic performance - with an odd Mafioso accent - as the severe taskmaster. Still, he manages to spit out with the proper bitterness Beckett’s lament about life.

″They give birth astride of a grave, the light gleams an instant, then it’s night once more,″ he says. It’s a jolting note, considering all the laughs going on around him.

The usually boyish Irwin, looking like an old man in superb makeup by J. Roy Helland, is sensational as the abused servant Lucky. The actor is an accomplished mime as well as a comedian. Every gesture has been carefully thought out, not only for the comedy, but for the pain that lies underneath the laughs.

″Godot″ straddles both comedy and drama as Beckett tries to grapple with fundamental questions of human existence. At times, the play teeters on despair while making the audience laugh out loud. But Nichols’ production pretty much gives up on the drama. And maybe it doesn’t matter. With this cast, ″Godot″ can be enjoyed at its most superficial and comic level, even though it rarely digs below the surface.

In the published text of the play, ″Waiting for Godot″ is described as ″a tragicomedy in two acts.″ The Lincoln Center revival concentrates on the laughs - and gets them. But by doing so, it loses the haunting loneliness and tragedy that also permeate the play.

In other reviews, Howard Kissel of the Daily News wrote: ″The virtue of Nichols’ approach is that, unlike many productions where Beckett’s austerity and somberness are heightened by actors’ desire to make the work confusing and thus more profound, this ‘Godot’ is direct, accessible and entertaining. ... Even if the play rarely achieves pathos, its ending is haunting because of Jennifer Tipton’s masterful lighting.″

Clive Barnes wrote in the New York Post: ″Nichols is quite wonderful in timing the production, in collaborating with his actors to hit every precise button as they come up ... This is an immaculate production that is a shade too self-conscious for its own perfection, but one which, in its care and precision, has been, like Godot, worth waiting for.″

Frank Rich wrote in The New York Times: ″The naked realism of ‘Godot,’ which belongs to no specific place or time but to all places and all time, does not suit a director whose gift is for comedy strongly rooted in contemporary social detail. Rather than expanding his artistic reach to meet Beckett’s, (Nichols) contracts the play to fit his own chilly esthetic. ... Audiences will still be waiting for a transcendent ‘Godot’ long after the clowns at Lincoln Center, like so many others passing through Beckett’s eternal universe before them, have come and gone.″