This performance of Samuel Beckett's "Waiting for Godot" is puzzling.
Taken individually the performances and the direction, and we could add the design, lighting, costuming, are exceptional.
Waiting for Godot
Chris O'Neil as Vladimir, for example, is brilliant. He may be even more brilliant than he was in the earlier Dublin production he came here in and made his reputation with.
Or take Richard Hummert. Hummert plays Pozzo. I suspect he's giving the definitive performance of his career.
The direction by Vincent O'Neill, Chris O'Neill's brother from Dublin, is intelligent and very, very firm-minded, controlled. There's absolutely no sense of any unfinished business. Two instances of this are the performances by Saul Elkin as Estragon and Jerry Finnegan as Lucky.
Lucky is possibly the toughest role in "Godot" for an actor. Vincent O'Neill, who played the part in the wonderful Dublin production, has choreographed the performance and kept a tight rein on Finnegan's predilection to waver focus. From Elkin, O'Neill has got a moving performance that utilizes more physical features than he has been known to attempt in the past.
O'Neill has extended everyone a little in the right direction. The design, the usual tree and a rock and in this case a scattering of leaves added in, appears to be his. Gary Hughes' lighting and David Jay's costumes benefit the overall effect.
It's a puzzle, then, why the performance isn't as affective as it might be. It is clear as a bell in every component, and still the parts don't add up to the kind of seriocomic whole rightly expected.
It is good, but not more than that. It isn't as wrenchingly funny as it can be, nor as wrenchingly sad as it might be. It isn't wrenching at all in any direction. It sits there to be appreciated, clear and well-acted, but it doesn't take you by the existential throat.
Why? No one reason suggests itself. Perhaps the stage. The Pfeifer stage, an awkward thrust affair, is the worst stage of any of the city's theaters. The purported advantage, a radical 1950s-'60s notion, is that it thrusts itself on the audience's attention, breaking down artificial barriers. It doesn't work. In fact, it can have the opposite effect. The Pfeifer's has a gray-carpeted moat between stage and seats that distances the two. Maybe it's this that works against O'Neill's "Godot."
Another partial explanation is the old standby, chemistry. Whatever happens between actors is filed under the heading of chemistry. It's there or it's not, and whatever it is, it gets under the skin of the actors and eventually under the skin of the spectators. "Godot" is a special case, because everything is stripped back to the nerve endings of existence. There being no other places to hide, great pressure is placed on the actors playing Estragon and Vladimir especially to form a deep-souled bond. The chemistry between Chris O'Neill and Elkin doesn't seem sufficiently active.
This said, "Godot" nonetheless is one of the 20th century's monumental plays, thought by some to be one of the great plays of any period. Opportunities to see it are rare. There's no reason this opportunity shouldn't be taken advantage of, though be advised everything Beckett can do to you in "Godot" isn't coming across.
Samuel Beckett's seriocomic masterpiece.
Featuring Chris O'Neill, Saul Elkin, Jerry Finnegan, Richard Hummert, Leah Prentiss. Directed by Vincent O'Neill.
Performances of the University at Buffalo theatre and dance department's production are at 8 Thursdays through Saturdays, at 3 Sundays, through Feb. 4, in the Pfeifer Theatre, 681 Main St.