If the two main protagonists from Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot,” Vladimir and Estragon, were transported to a suburban golf course in Ohio and you added two more characters just like them, they could very well be the quartet of life-challenged curmudgeons that populate scripter Carter W. Lewis’ comical if underdeveloped tale “Golf With Alan Shepard.” Lewis and helmer Skip Greer run out of thematic ideas very early in this tale of four elderly gents “searching for the meaning of their lives and the location of their tee shots,” leaving this endearing, sumptuously talented ensemble to fend for themselves.
It is almost enough to watch Jack Klugman, Charles Durning, Paul Dooley and voiceover whiz Granville Van Dusen (Race Bannon in “Johnny Quest”) having at each other; ultimately, however, they are left with the task of investing their talents into four memorable characters waiting for a play to happen.
Lewis likens the dysfunction of these four to the golf ball that Alan Shepard hit on the surface of the moon. Everyone saw it take flight but no one knows where it landed or if it ever did. It is the incompleteness of their lives that torments each of the four golfers who’ve been playing together weekly for years. Nearing their final stages, each is reaching the desperation stage in an effort to find some tangible meaning to the years spent on earth. Having no other outlet for their frustrations, they beat on each other.
Griff (Klugman), 83, is a walking ambulance case who can’t even see his ball once he hits it. Hilariously pugnacious and misanthropic to his core, Griff desperately want to win at all costs and resents having to team up with his deceased former partner Kenny’s brother Milt (Dooley).
Underplaying perfectly to counterbalance Klugman, Dooley’s gentler-spirited Milt has harbored a lifelong resentment that his brother always favored Griff over him, mostly because Griff saved Kenny’s life during WWII — a fact Griff brings up at every opportunity.
The competing duo of Ned (Durning) and Larkin (Van Dusen) have some issues of their own. Durning’s Ned is a heartbreakingly fragile widower whose sorrow at the death of his wife is beginning to overwhelm him. Van Dusen invests a lot of energy and spirit into the complex persona of Larkin, a Zenlike defrocked priest who was kicked out of the church for having sex with a 19-year-old drifter who subsequently stole his car. He also happens to be the best golfer of the four.
Given the intriguing nature of each character, it would have been nice if Lewis had actually developed a viable plot for them to follow. Instead, these four simply pass the time, keeping up a constant barrage of barbed quips that usually hit their mark. Griff and Larkin are particularly vitriolic and comical in their disdain for one another.
There is some added nonsense about Griff’s unrelenting fury at the white-clad tennis players who have been allowed into the club and Ned’s sudden, mysterious ability to get the ball in the hole. Lewis has also thrown in a perplexing surrealistic ending that includes a helmeted astronaut (Daniel Waskom) with a golf club searching for his moon shot. This neither amplifies nor clarifies the doings that have preceded it.
If Klugman, Dooley, Durning and Van Dusen would simply sit onstage and expound for two hours, the audience would probably have a better understanding of the meaning of life.
At least the premise is workable, aided greatly by Keith E. Mitchell’s impressively executed golf course setting.