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“Let’s wait until we know exactly how we stand,” says one vagabond to another at the Clark Street Playhouse, and in those words Samuel Beckett spreads the snare for poor Didi and Gogo: Where, in the post-atomic landscape they inhabit, is there any certainty to be found? But here and there, in the next breath or in between the lines, the author shows his hapless characters—and us, not incidentally—how to escape the trap: Live now, he prescribes, and live in the now, for in waiting and hoping there is only entropy.

If Waiting for Godot has always seemed a despairing thing, Dorothy Neumann’s lovely production for the Washington Shakespeare Company underscores the tenderness in it, the gentle humanity that informs Beckett’s bleak assessment of the human condition—and Christopher Henley and Brian Hemmingsen make sweet, clear work of the play’s spare poetry. It’s a quiet triumph, this outing, for the little company on the wrong side of the Crystal City tracks.

The events—the nonevents—of the play are the same, of course: Henley and Hemmingsen come and go, talk and eat; they have a pee, button up, dust off the stone on which they sit, take a nap, dream of lives a whit less harsh then their own. They encounter a rich buffoon and his wretched slave. They do nothing of any consequence, and they despair of the doing. They yearn to live, and they hesitate to do it—hoping for a certainty, a security, that promises to arrive tomorrow, always tomorrow.

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Here, though, the lines and the gestures that resonate aren’t the hollow ones, but somehow those that underscore the fierce connection between Beckett’s two starvelings. Hemmingsen’s gentle giant of a Gogo enters, discovers Didi’s hat hanging on that eternal tree, sniffs it suspiciously, and smiles almost the only honest, open smile of the night, clasping the battered felt thing to his heart. Later, when he suggests halfheartedly that the two of them might separate, what you hear is not his pique but his lament for “the beauty of the way” and “the goodness of the wayfarers.” Here’s a man who might understand, if only he could focus for a moment, that even if he comes Godot will have nothing to offer these two that they cannot make for themselves.

Or that he could offer little, anyway; no more than anyone else. Steve Wilhite’s Pozzo says it, actually—crass, cruel Pozzo, with his absurd concern for appearances, his ridiculous bombast, and his inevitable blindness: “From the meanest creature one departs wiser, richer, more conscious of one’s blessings.” Beckett mocks this man’s manners, his rituals and affectations, but he gives him moments of startling clarity and gorgeous poetry: “The tears of the world are a constant quantity,” Pozzo says at one point, and although the context suggests that the observation is meant to sound unfeeling, it comes across here as a flash of compassionate worldliness, almost comforting in its honesty.

Neumann and her cast find many such moments to explore, and they work magic with them. Richard Mancini makes Lucky’s dance a heartbreaking thing, a gesture of diminished capacity and half-remembered grace. Hemmingsen’s Gogo goes at that pestilential boot like an aging, half-lunatic cat chasing its tail. Henley tosses off the play’s title line with a vaudevillian’s shrug—a gesture impossible to capture in the telling, hilarious in the playing, and one that points up the self-mockery with which Beckett lards his text. The two tramps deliver their escalating exchange of insults—it ends, famously, with the all-trumping epithet “Crritic!”—with a delicious, convincing, comical relish.

And Neumann lets the play’s brutalities pass gently: In Act 2, Hemmingsen’s Gogo administers that beating to Mancini’s Lucky with little of the usual savagery; when Didi’s impatience with Gogo finds expression in the very vocabulary of contempt Pozzo has earlier used to govern Lucky, Henley seems almost to recoil as he hears himself speak—to understand his own contamination, to want to rid himself of it.

What’s most striking, though, is the way Beckett’s portrait of the human state—the suggestion that our lives are essentially meaningless, that we can but fill time until the void consumes us—sounds here less lamentational than exhortational. “Tomorrow, when I wake, or think I do, what shall I say of today?” asks Didi in that last magnificent speech, and Henley sounds less resigned to the impossibility of making some identifiable mark on history than determined to find a way not to be forgotten. His is a Didi who will struggle to the last—who will not go quietly, never mind his longing for the dark—a Didi who wordlessly, as the lights go down again on him and his unmoving partner, turns the question on us and demands a better answer.

So, then: What did you do today?

Today is always New Year’s Eve in Biljana Srbljanovic’s Belrade Trilogy—New Year’s, with its eternally twinned suggestion of endings and beginnings, of chances missed and of opportunities not yet seized. Srbljanovic understands that the turning of the year is as much an occasion for looking back, for assessing, as for reaching for what’s next, and Robert McNamara’s production for the Scena Theatre is a bittersweet thing indeed.

In three short segments—one set in Prague, one in Sydney, one in Los Angeles—Srbljanovic sketches out the postwar lives of three sets of onetime Yugoslavs who survived the ’90s with the variously desperate strategies refugees and émigrés have always employed. Kica and Mica, two brothers, grasp at fiscal and emotional straws in the Czech capital, phoning home to their mother with cheerful lies about their steady advance; Down Under, two couples grapple with the terrors of exile, grimly reassessing what constitutes “success” in a world where unforgiving ideologies govern one home, unforgiving market forces the other; in Hollywood, two thinking, feeling types connect, only to find the promise of their togetherness destroyed by a random act born of prejudice, of cultural dissonance, of escalating miscommunication and mindless rage and random accident.

Scena’s bare-bones staging finds a grim humor in the first two segments, but they’re underwhelming exercises, hamstrung by ill-matched performances from an uneven cast. The production comes into its own only in the third segment, with Dan Brick and Linda Murray’s splendidly subtle imagining of a budding romance between two artistically inclined exiles who get stoned one warm winter evening and discover a glimmer of what might be mutual understanding. It’s giddy, sweet fun, and so real that when Denman C. Anderson’s jumpy, self-conscious head case starts obsessing over whether this thoroughly baked twosome are laughing at him, you’ll have to fight the urge to jump in and explain the misunderstanding before things get out of hand.

Which they do, of course—tragically, a bit melodramatically, but not in the least bit unconvincingly. Srbljanovic’s L.A. story, together with the brief, wordless coda that wraps the Belgrade Trilogy devastatingly up, is drama at its fraught, communicative best, and it more than makes up for the middling passages that have gone before. CP