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There is a difference between the desperation of waiting characters and the desperation of a waiting audience. Waiting for Godot is a classic of absurdist theatre not only for its symbology but also for its potential—the power of actors playing gut-level emotions on a stage decorated with nothing more than a desiccated tree and some sandbags.

Producer and director Bill Johnson opts for humor over pathos in this version, and although this might seem a good choice for audiences not up for a challenge, he makes his task all the harder with his casting. Vladimir (Sam Littlefield) and Estragon (Ludwig Manukian) are supposedly inseparable tragi-clowns, wandering the French countryside for half a century. Why cast two young actors to play these roles? Manukian bails Johnson out, for the moon-faced performer is ideal, despite his youth: eyes percolating with hope one moment, devoid of it the next.

Littlefield affects a ridiculously contrived walk, and at those moments when his character must emit the misery that seeps into his consciousness, the actor tends to widen his eyes and stare off into space with a fixed expression. Even more disastrous is Jonathan Irpino as Pozzo. Irpino has concocted a risible faux English accent and mispronounces not only the words "indefatigable" and "effulgence" but also the name of his own character, announcing himself as "Po-zo."

Thankfully, Owen Casey Rothstein fully commits to a lumbering, drooling, pathetic depiction of Pozzo's servant, Lucky, that nicely amplifies Beckett's vision. No one expects Bert Lahr and Burgess Meredith to come back from the dead to resume the lead roles, but Johnson's production shies away from the pain inherent in the text. All is not lost, despite Godot never showing, for Manukian exhibits misty-eyed pathos, begging for release, just as ably as he elicits laughter spitting out the turnip he has mistaken for a carrot. He is a fine actor, waiting for the right role in the right play at the right time.

"Waiting for Godot," presented by and at The Empty Stage, 2372 Veteran Ave., West L.A. Sun. 2 p.m. Nov. 9-Dec. 21. $14. (310) 803-5449.

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