Theater: no use waiting for `Godot' tickets. Comic and tragic blend well under Nichols's direction

Waiting for Godot Tragicomedy by Samuel Beckett. Directed by Mike Nichols. A synthesizer chord crescendoes and envelops the small Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater. The sound subsides. There follows a brief drum roll and crash of cymbals, like the exclamatory accompaniment of a feat - or pratfall - in a vaudeville act. Perhaps it is an impudent put-down of the cataclysmic overture. Whatever the intent, the all-star Mike Nichols production of Samuel Beckett's ``Waiting for Godot'' (in a newly provided Beckett text) is under way on Tony Walton's bleak, dusty roadside setting.

While the emphasis on comedy in the tragicomedy extends more than once to slapstick, the tragic tone has by no means been slighted. Underlying the physical energy with which certain scenes are enacted is a constant awareness of the subjective question: the enigma of man's fate in a Beckett universe.

The principal task of illuminating the enigma falls, of course, to the forlorn tramps, Estragon and Vladimir, and more particularly on the philosophical Vladimir.

Their extended dialogues - speculations, earthy repartee, Scriptural allusions, altercations, and affectionate reconciliations - are performed with meticulous care and finesse by Robin Williams (Estragon-Gogo) and Steve Martin (Vladimir-Didi). From his initial, violent struggles to remove an uncomfortable boot until the moment Didi rouses him for the last time from a refuge in sleep, Mr. Williams personifies the timorous yet challenging sidekick, with his numerous frustrations and small satisfactions. ``Godot'' marks this gifted comic's impressive theatrical debut.

Moviegoers who admired Mr. Martin's Cyrano in ``Roxanne'' would not be surprised at the emotional substance of his Didi. Mr. Martin is as adroit as he is trim, as vocally authoritative as he is comically astute.

It is left for Didi to deliver the tragicomedy's existential summation. To Didi, ``in this immense confusion one thing alone is clear. We are waiting for Godot to come. ... Or for night to fall. We have kept our appointment and that's an end to that. We are not saints, but we have kept our appointment. How many people can boast as much?''

The interruptions to the waiting game are provided by the protean F. Murray Abraham's bullying, mock-bombastic Pozzo and Bill Irwin's overburdened slave, Lucky, tied to his master by a cruel rope. Mr. Irwin handles Lucky's impenetrable monologue with fierce intensity and performs the evening's wildest dance. In such passages, Mr. Nichols and his actors exult in a kind of vaudevillesque extravagance.

How sharp in contrast is the second-act return of a blinded Pozzo and a silenced Lucky, headed for their own oblivion. It remains only for the well-mannered Boy (Lukas Haas) to inform the tramps that Godot isn't coming for yet another day.

Notwithstanding the admired performances of Bert Lahr and E.G. Marshall, ``Waiting for Godot'' was not a success when it premi`ered on Broadway in 1956. It has long since become a pioneering classic of 20th-century theater.

The Lincoln Center revival was costumed, bowler hats and all, by Ann Roth. Jennifer Tipton's lighting includes the hazy full moon that casts a forlorn glow over each act's ending. ``Waiting for Godot,'' which was sold out as soon as tickets became available, is scheduled to run through Nov. 27.

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