Samuel Beckett was arguably the most important writer for the theatre of our century. Winner of the Nobel Prize for literature in 1969, Beckett wrote three masterpieces for the stage: Waiting for Godot (1952), Endgame (1957) and Krapp's Last Tape (1960). Many people would add Happy Days (1961) to this list, but even if we are stingy, three masterpieces are a lot. Even Chekhov wrote only four.

In particular, Waiting for Godot must be acknowledged as among the best plays of the contemporary world, along with George Bernard Shaw's Saint Joan, Bertolt Brecht's Galileo, Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's Journey Into Night and Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire.

(I might round out a Top Ten with Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman, August Wilson's Piano Lesson, Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Tony Kushner's Angels in America, and maybe, Fifth of July by Lanford Wilson, the playwright I have worked with most closely.)

I am too young to have caught Burt Lahr in the first Broadway production of Godot, but Mike Nichols directed a stunning revival for Lincoln Center in 1988 that starred Robin Williams and Steve Martin as the two tramps, with F. Murray Abraham as Pozzo and Bill Irwin as Lucky.

So I approached the matinee of Planet Earth's exploration of Godot with great eagerness. If one had to be indoors on that beautiful February afternoon, there are few plays that could provide more welcome illumination of the human condition.

Unfortunately, Peter James Cirino's production seeks to compete with the script for the audience's attention. The approach to this Godot is similar to that of Polish director Jerzy Grotowski, who used texts only as a point of departure. Right off the top, Cirino has added three silent characters to the five written. Beckett's starkly isolated word is diminished by the teeming images of the director.

Admittedly, Cirino's images are sometimes striking and often fun, but they usually seem to arise from a frenetic fear that more is not nearly enough. Every lily is gilded. Little is left to the imagination. Each pause is filled, and resonance is banged on the head.

As the audience enters Planet Earth, two giant gray creatures, padded with the exaggerated armor of football players, stand in contemplation of a raspberry nylon bag that writhes with teeming rhythms. The giants wear helmets that suggest the coiled maze of the human brain. The pulsating pink bag plops about the stage until one by one figures emerge from within--first a male, then another and finally, a female. These amoebic creatures dance an expression of immutable angst.

After an extended prologue, we discover a man perched at the top of a barren tree in the center of a bleak landscape. Nearby, another man is buried beneath a mound of stones. As these men begin to stir, the play Beckett wrote begins. First, we meet Estragon (Gogo) who peers intensely into his hat, as if searching for vermin. Then the rocks roll aside in a miniature avalanche to reveal Vladimir (Didi), who greets his companion as a long-lost friend.

Each man has familiar human problems: Gogo's feet ache from boots that are too tight. Didi's breath stinks of garlic, and he has great difficulty urinating without pain. Awakening from the oblivion of sleep, they try to recall what has gone before. They have slept the night in a ditch (although Cirino has Gogo clutching the limbs of a tree) and they have been beaten, as usual, by unknown assailants.

Bored with each other's company, they often muse that they might fare better separately, but neither has the courage to go it alone. Instead, they try to pass the time while fending off an obscure future. "Nothing happens. Nobody comes, nobody goes. It's awful."

The dialogue presents a running motif of despair as this exchange is often repeated: "Let's go."/"We can't."/"Why not?"/"We're waiting for Godot." This is followed by a whimpered groan of frustration: "Aaah!"

The two hobos engage each other in games and diversions to ease the ennui. They cling desperately to any distraction from the intense boredom that dimly masks their fear of the unknown. Gogo serves himself a carrot on a silver tray by candlelight. Didi uses himself as a bowling ball, throwing himself at the pins to score a strike.

"Charming evening we're having."
"Worse than the vaudeville, worse than the circus."

Eventually, they encounter another couple--not the anticipated title character, but a bizarre beast of burden and his cruel master. The tyrant is Pozzo, armed with whips he incessantly uses to beat the hapless slave, Lucky. Pozzo is bringing Lucky to a fair, where he hopes to get a good price for him.

Both horrified and fascinated, Gogo and Didi are at least distracted from their own situation. Some critics have seen in Pozzo an image of capitalism and in Lucky, the enslavement of the colonialized Third World. Although bigger and more powerful than his master, Lucky is an almost willing victim, whose parlor trick is to "think," following a pathetic attempt to dance.

Gogo and Didi are "all mankind, whether we like it or not." "We always find something to do to prove that we exist." "Yes, we are magicians!"

In Christopher Haines and Mike Traylor, Cirino has two actors capable of playing a version of Godot that might have celebrated the greatness of the play. Instead, Cirino has abused their talents with tiresome antics that often obscure the point.

Haines has a cheerful, mindless optimism that is absolutely endearing. Traylor is a sad sack of Buster Keaton dimensions that sourly, plaintively acts as his foil. Together, they play with the effortless dopey charm of an Abbott and Costello.

Molly Kellogg Cirino as Pozzo is very effective in her final scene, and Kent Kemmish is certainly pitiable as Lucky.

One of Peter Cirino's best bits of business involves three of the actors encircling the tree, restlessly exchanging hats. In this moment, the spirit of Samuel Beckett is truly captured. It's a shame there aren't more.

Marshall W. Mason has won six Obie Awards for directing work by playwrights Tennessee Williams, Lanford Wilson and Jules Feiffer. He is now associate professor of theatre at Arizona State University.