December 10, 2019

Starring in ‘Godot’ … and Remembering Beckett

In his art-filled Brentwood living room, actor Alan Mandell approached a bookcase filled with volumes on the late existential playwright Samuel Beckett, reverently pulling a file from a shelf. Inside was a rare treasure:  a copy of the script Beckett gave the now 84-year-old Mandell of his classic “Waiting for Godot,” inscribed with notes and cuts in the playwright’s ornate handwriting. 

The actor is one of the Irish Nobel laureate’s few collaborators who are still living, and he continues to be a preeminent interpreter of Beckett’s work, having performed in legendary productions of “Endgame” and “Waiting for Godot” directed by Beckett himself. He is now bringing his considerable expertise to a landmark version of “Godot” at the Mark Taper Forum, playing Estragon (nicknamed Gogo), the more vulnerable of two tramps who are perpetually waiting for the absent Godot. Mandell’s annotated script has been an important source for the production, which also stars prominent Beckett interpreter Barry McGovern as Vladimir (nicknamed Didi), Estragon’s more intellectual longtime companion, as well as James Cromwell as the pompous aristocrat Pozzo and Hugo Armstrong as his slave, Lucky.

Mandell is slender and fit, the result of a daily exercise regimen and tap dancing lessons, and, like his character, he has a sweet demeanor. Asked to describe Estragon, he broke into a rueful smile and a half shrug, his expressive blue eyes crinkling in a manner reminiscent of Stan Laurel. “That’s my sense of Gogo,” he said with evident affection. “I smile at Gogo, because I understand the child in him. I almost see sometimes my grandchildren, back when they were 6 or 7.”

While Mandell has previously portrayed Lucky, this is his first turn as Gogo, who remains on stage throughout nearly the entire play. “I like to say it was easier when I was 80,” he quipped of Beckett’s dense dialogue and non-sequiturs.

Beckett, he recalls, was a simple but precise director. For example, when Mandell once used the contraction “it’s” during a rehearsal, Beckett gently reminded him he had written “it is.”  “He didn’t direct so much as conduct,” Mandell said, raising his arms and crooking his pinkies to demonstrate.  And, of course, Beckett famously declined to discuss the meaning of his plays. When Mandell asked about the name, “Godot” (pronounced God-oh) Beckett replied merely that the surname was common in the south of France.  That is where the Irish author conducted much of his work in the French resistance, another subject he declined to discuss.

Alan Mandell

Yet Beckett “was a fascinating, magnetic personality — one of the most loving, gracious, gifted and tormented individuals I’ve met,” Mandell said.  “The [angst] would be, I suppose, from his view of existence, which is there even at the opening of ‘Godot.’  When Vladimir says to Gogo, ‘There you are again,’ and Gogo says, ‘Am I?’  It isn’t just, ‘Am I?’ but, ‘Am I,’ ” Mandell demonstrated, looking about in fear and wonder.

In telephone interviews, director Michael Arabian lauded Mandell’s comic timing, while McGovern praised his co-star as “such a giving person. … He wants ‘Godot’ to work on its own terms because he has such reverence and respect for Beckett; he just wants to get it right.”

Mandell has served as an actor, director and general manager of the Repertory Theatre of Lincoln Center in New York, as well as consulting director of the Los Angeles Theatre Center.

But his observant Jewish parents disapproved of his aspirations while he was growing up in Toronto. When he told his Polish immigrant father that he wanted to go into the theater, the patriarch retorted, “A nice Jewish boy goes to the theater.”

Nevertheless, by his early 20s, Mandell was deeply involved with the San Francisco Actor’s Workshop, where he had never heard of Beckett when he first read — and was baffled by — “Godot.”  “But then I realized the questions the characters were asking were not unlike the questions I was asking myself:  ‘What are we doing here? Is there a God? How do we pass the time?’ ” he said.

Mandell’s understanding deepened as the workshop was invited to perform “Godot” at San Quentin State Prison, where the stage was in the area that had once housed the gallows. At the play’s conclusion, he recalled, “There was such an eruption of cheering and applause.  The prisoners ‘got’ what waiting is all about.  They saw Didi and Gogo as inmates; Pozzo was the warden, and Lucky was the man on death row.”

Mandell was stunned when Beckett hired him to play Nagg, one of the legless characters who live in ashbins in his play “Endgame,” in 1967. His fears were assuaged when, after a reading, Beckett tapped him on the knee and whispered, “You’re going to be very good.”  Beckett refused to allow Mandell to remain scrunched in his ashbin throughout the play, as he had done in previous productions, proclaiming, “Oh no, no, that would be inhuman.”  And he asked the crew to cut a hole in the bin so Mandell could get out between scenes. 

Their friendship blossomed as Beckett took Mandell and his wife to dinner, where he would insist that they have the finest food on the menu, but he ate not a bite.

The last time Mandell saw the playwright, he was at his nursing home in Paris, which Beckett called “the old croaks’ home,” and where Beckett was frail but not without humor. He pointed to an elderly woman asleep in front of the television, her mouth open, and said, “You see her? She’s not there,” Mandell recalled, adding, “That’s exactly how he described the [elderly] character of Nell in her ashbin in ‘Endgame.’ ”

Mandell recalls those nursing home visits as “lovely” rather than depressing; Beckett even asked for Mandell’s photograph, and gave him a picture of himself inscribed with the words, “For Alan, with profound admiration.” Mandell still has the photograph.

“I was always surprised we became such good friends,” Mandell said, shaking his head with a Gogo-like wonder. “It would have been like assuming you were going to be good friends with Anton Chekhov.”

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