"Nothing happens, nobody comes, nobody goes, it's awful!"
It's not a very eventful day for Estragon, half of the couple at the heart of "Waiting for Godot." Actually, all his days are like that, and so is the play -- minus the "awful" bit.
It's pretty amazing that such a piece would become a classic -- can you imagine Samuel Beckett pitching his concept at a Broadway investors' meeting today? Yet the author's 1953 masterpiece is hypnotically entrancing, and this particular production, directed by Anthony Page, ain't too shabby, either.
Following its usual MO, the Roundabout's hired above-the-title names and prayed for the best. This time they've lucked out with Nathan Lane as Estragon and Bill Irwin as his partner in grime, Vladimir, or as they call themselves, Gogo and Didi.
All they do is wait for the mysterious Godot to show up. Spoiler alert: He never does.
Just who does come is the lofty Pozzo (John Goodman), dragging his slobbering slave Lucky (John Glover, scarily haggard) at the end of a rope. This doesn't help our two tramps one bit.
Looking like worn-out versions of Laurel and Hardy, Gogo and Didi busy themselves any way they can. They argue, they look at the lone tree, they munch on vegetables, they tell unfinished jokes. Gogo threatens to leave, only to be reminded that he can't, not until Godot arrives.
The first act ends; they do it all over again in the second one.
If you're going to have a pair of men do next to nothing for two hours, you can choose far worse than Lane and Irwin.
Beckett's stage directions are both specific and vague, which allows the director and actors a lot of leeway. This led to Robin Williams' controversial mugging in the 1988 Mike Nichols production (which also starred Steve Martin), and Lane could easily have gone down that route.
The actor is known and loved for his attention-grabbing antics, but here he delivers a nicely modulated performance, perfectly in sync with the drollness of Irwin (who played Lucky back in '88). When they are given more obviously vaudevillian routines, they earn their laughs honestly.
But while Page, Irwin and Lane ably mine the material's comic potential, they come up short trying to suggest its existential dread. Goodman huffs and puffs, but projects little in the way of actual menace.
Santo Loquasto's busy set, reminiscent of those rocky planets the old "Star Trek" crew always got stranded on, doesn't help, either. It's left to Glover, equally terrifying and pathetic, to suggest the incoherent void at the end of humanity, but he alone can't do it all.
But that's just my interpretation.
The most potent aspect of "Godot," after all, is that you can project almost any meaning onto it. Right now, there couldn't be a more provocative text for a culture such as ours, built on a need for instant gratification, a pathological fear of boredom and the seeming inability to learn from the past. It's all funny, yes, until someone gets hurt.
Half a century after he first appeared on Broadway, which is also how long it’s been since he last appeared on Broadway, the old tramp still can’t deliver a simple song. Heck, Vladimir can’t even get the tune right as he wanders through the graveyard ditty that begins the second act of Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot,” which opened on Thursday night at Studio 54.
Yet by the time he’s finished struggling through his number — and moods that dance between defeat and defiance — Vladimir the hobo (played by Bill Irwin) is more inspirational than a dozen Susan Boyles belting beat-the-odds renditions of dream-dreaming anthems.
Ms. Boyle’s closely watched performance in a British talent contest may capture show-biz fantasies of the ordinary transfigured. Vladimir’s clumsy musical stylings follow how ordinary life really plays out. His making it through his song, step by faltering step, is like anybody making it through a single day. And the next day, and the next day, and all the next days to come. If he isn’t some sort of hero, then none of us are.
That’s entertainment? A grotty, half-senescent guy wrestling a song to a draw? When “Waiting for Godot” first arrived in New York 53 years ago, critics and theatergoers were divided on that question. (It ran for 59 performances, with a revival the following year that lasted less than a week.)
But in 2009, Anthony Page’s smart, engaging production for the Roundabout Theater Company makes it clear that this greatest of 20th-century plays is also entertainment of a high order. It seems fitting that “Godot” — which also stars Nathan Lane, John Glover and John Goodman — returns to Broadway in an interpretation that emphasizes the irresistible rhythms achieved by Beckett’s radical literary surgery, that of cutting basic theatrical diversions off at the knees.
Listen, for example, to Estragon (Mr. Lane), Vladimir’s vagabond companion of many decades, starting to tell a joke about an Englishman in a brothel and then forgetting all about after it the first line.
Or the lordly, arrogant Pozzo (Mr. Goodman), his booming authority fading as he finishes a lush pastoral description and says: “I weakened a little toward the end. Did you notice?” Or the cadaverous Lucky (Mr. Glover), Pozzo’s ill-used slave, trying to dance on collapsing legs.
At first glance, Vladimir and Estragon (or Didi and Gogo), side by side, resemble Judy Garland and Fred Astaire, slumming it in Irving Berlin’s larky hobo duet, “A Couple of Swells.” Look closer, though: these tramps’ faces are encrusted with what look like syphilitic chancres and fresh cuts, as well as stage dirt.
All the classic music-hall routines have been crippled and in the process acquire their own compelling grace and energy. “Waiting for Godot” may well be the ultimate statement in world drama on existential futility in the wake of the atom bomb and all that. But it’s also a brilliant piece of craftsmanship, which exactly matches its form to its content, while holding a mirror to its audience.
As Kenneth Tynan wrote of Beckett’s tramps after the infamous London premiere of “Godot” in 1955: “Were we not in the theater, we should, like them, be clowning and quarreling, aimlessly bickering and aimlessly making up — all, as one of them says, ‘to give the impression that we exist.’ ”
The high-concept reframing of this play over the years, the versions that have set it in assorted slums and postnuclear wastelands, have overdressed a work that needs no accessories. Mr. Page is a strong, naturalistic director who works from within the text rather than layering over it. (His previous Broadway productions include the excellent revivals of “A Doll’s House” in 1997 and “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” in 2005.)
His approach to “Godot” (here pronounced GOD-oh) is respectful without being reverent, and it scales up the stark minimalism indicated by Beckett’s script into the sort of good-looking production that most Broadway theatergoers (and particularly Roundabout subscribers) seem to demand without sacrificing the play’s complex simplicity.
So rather than the usual basic mound of dirt and lone tree, we have a complete rocky landscape (designed by Santo Loquasto and exquisitely lighted by Peter Kaczorowski) and, in Mr. Lane (king of the Broadway musicals) and Mr. Goodman (who starred in the long-running sitcom “Roseanne”) two performers with marquee appeal who are not generally associated with classical drama. (Such casting has famous precedents: the comedian Bert Lahr played Estragon in the 1956 version, and Robin Williams and Steve Martin starred in the much debated 1988 Lincoln Center production, in which Mr. Irwin appeared as Lucky.)
As it turns out, these actors serve the purposes of Beckett’s bleak comedy admirably (and in Mr. Goodman’s case, spectacularly). I can’t recall another “Godot” that passed so quickly or that felt so assured in its comic timing. Such confidence doesn’t come easy in depicting a world in which, as Vladimir says anxiously, “time has stopped.”
The play’s narrative is defined, as its title promises, by the intransitive act of waiting for someone who is unlikely ever to show up. (Cameron Clifford and Matthew Schechter alternate in the role of the child who announces Godot’s nonarrival.) Yet Mr. Page and his cast generate brisk comic liveliness throughout the show with tasty variety of style and pacing enforced by the paradoxical grace of fine actors artfully being inept.
As a profound comedy, this “Godot” is deeply satisfying. As an emotionally moving work, it is less so, except when Mr. Goodman and Mr. Glover are onstage. That’s because while Mr. Irwin and Mr. Lane have each mapped credible paths to their roles, mostly the paths are parallel and rarely intersect.
Mr. Irwin, famous as an inventively original mime before wowing audiences with his Tony-winning turn in Mr. Page’s “Virginia Woolf,” takes a cerebral approach. He applies to his verbal comedy the same careful imbalance that he brings to his physical comedy. His Vladimir, the talkier of the tramps, is suspicious of every word he speaks. His sentences are a study in fragmentation, sometimes to brilliant effect.
Mr. Lane is a classic Broadway baby, a master of the one-liner with topspin. As Estragon, he’s in a subdued mode, which gives an extra piquancy to his trademark wryness. But his clarion voice and ringing delivery are that of a comic in command. This is a bit confusing, since Vladimir, in the reading of “Godot,” is more the take-charge guy.
But more pertinently, this Estragon and Vladimir don’t feel like a real couple except in their moments of synchronized vaudeville. I was glad to have contrasting actors up there. (Two of either would have been too much.) But I only rarely felt the poignancy of these longtime fellow travelers’ interdependence.
I should note that Mr. Lane and Mr. Irwin are never more convincingly allied, like people bonding in an earthquake, than when Mr. Goodman is onstage. As well they should be. Mr. Goodman’s blusteringly genteel Pozzo explodes with the nonsensical tyranny of the autocrats in Lewis Carroll’s “Alice” books. In his relationship with Mr. Glover’s superb Lucky, who suggests a broken-down horse trying to avoid the glue factory, his Pozzo embodies centuries of aristocratic entitlement and subjugation. (This is a performance that any student of class systems needs to see.) But Mr. Goodman lets us glimpse the tickling uncertainty within the stolidness. He is human, after all, which means his very foundation is doubt.
“I’ve been better entertained,” says Vladimir dismissively, when asked his opinion of one of Pozzo’s perorations. But if, as this play contends, all life is nothing but passing time that would have passed anyway, I can think of few more invigorating ways of both doing and acknowledging exactly that.
It's been a busy and fairly eclectic spring on Broadway, so it seems fitting that the season should wind down with the two very different shows that opened Thursday night: a revival of the Samuel Beckett's classic Waiting for Godot and a new musical adaptation of the frothy feminist film romp 9 to 5.
No 20th-century play has been more influential, or more avidly deconstructed, than Godot. Yet it's a measure of the challenges it poses that it hasn't been produced on Broadway in more than 50 years.
In the new Roundabout Theatre Company production (* * * ½ out of four) at Studio 54, Beckett's hobos Estragon and Vladimir — Gogo and Didi, as they call each other — are played by Nathan Lane and Bill Irwin, with John Goodman in a supporting role. But like the current revival of Eugene Ionesco's Exit the King, this Godot is noteworthy less for its cast members' marquee value than their ability to make the existential, universal questions posed by the text accessible to a mass audience.
Granted, Godot is the trickier work. Every aspect of Gogo and Didi's bleak existence and co-dependent isolation is, and has been, subject to endless interpretation. There is no real action, only interaction, with the characters waiting in no particular place for someone who will never arrive. At the end of two acts, all we're sure of is that they've made no progress.
Under Anthony Page's brisk but sensitive direction, Lane and Irwin mine the humor and pathos in this simple but richly symbolic dilemma. Watching Irwin's thoughtful, restless Didi and the sad clown that is Lane's needy Gogo clash with and cling to each other is like watching two boys in a sandbox, learning primal struggles that will never stop informing their lives. When a red-faced Lane recoils from Irwin, telling him, "Don't touch me," then in the next breath pleads, "Stay with me," the terse lines speak volumes about the need for and impossibility of human connection.
Goodman and John Glover lend excellent support as Pozzo and Lucky, a blowhard and his miserable but oddly passive slave. Both men are, like Didi and Gogo — like all of us — prisoners of themselves. Santo Loquasto's scenic design and Jane Greenwood's costumes enhance the dim, ambiguous atmosphere: gray suits, gray rocks, a gray sky and a thin, sad tree that sprouts a few leaves in the second act.
We'll never know what the growth means — is it a false promise, an allusion, a glimmer of hope? — but Page and company ensure that we are profoundly entertained, and moved, as we wonder.
Aside from its title, there's no more perfect summation of "Waiting for Godot" than Estragon's complaint "Nothing happens, nobody comes, nobody goes, it's awful." But there's no trace of that monotony in the perversely gripping non-drama and fine-grained emotional textures of this haunting revival. Samuel Beckett's 1953 play has been absent from Broadway for more than 50 years, and the current climate of pervasive anxiety makes the timing ideal for a comedy of existential despair -- even better when it comes wrapped in Anthony Page's transcendent production, showcasing four distinctive actors at the top of their game.
In terms of its theatrical innovation and its thematic depth, Beckett was onto something profound with this elliptical tragicomedy. There's no more influential work in 20th century theater, and no play forges a more intensely personal connection with its audience, provoking individualized responses and piercing associations in any spectator willing to give full focus to the absurdist classic.
Seeing "Godot" at age 20 or 30 is an entirely different experience from seeing it at 40 or 50. No matter the achievements of any given life, the disappointments and losses stack up in equal or greater measure, and the onerous routines grow more punishing with every passing year. In a staging as beautiful as Page's, those thoughts play in your head like sweet, sad music.
The lead musicians are Vladimir (Bill Irwin) and Estragon (Nathan Lane), the dusty, bowler-hatted tramps who convene each day by a sickly tree to kill time while waiting for the arrival of the ever-elusive, possibly divine Godot and, more obliquely, for a reason to go on living. Departing mildly from Beckettian tradition, the specified "country road" is interpreted here by designer Santo Loquasto as a forbidding mountain pass, adding another layer of desolation to the repeat-mode limbo in which Didi and Gogo spend their days.
Brilliantly teamed in their Laurel-and-Hardy physical characteristics as well as their contrasting temperaments -- Lane a jovially sour kvetch with a hunched-over shuffle; Irwin a twitching, meditative clown with a jaunty, Chaplinesque gait -- the two actors commingle, collide and bounce off each other like a seasoned vaudeville duo. Yet even their shtickiest comic business or most flabbergasted double takes never disguise the bone-deep anxiety of two men unable to live with or without each other. Theirs is companionship reduced to the most elemental of human needs. Both suspect they would be better off alone, yet both gravitate each day toward a bittersweet reunion.
As they bicker and reconcile, moan about their aches and ailments, eat, try to sleep, invent games, consider suicide and engage in a perpetual struggle to connect the events of one day to the next, the hopeless insignificance of their existence -- and Man's -- sneaks up and punches you in the gut.
Didi and Gogo find distraction but no comfort in the passing of a no-less-symbiotic pair, the imperious Pozzo (John Goodman) and his hollow-eyed, hobbling slave of 60 years, Lucky (John Glover), scared to put down his baggage for fear of losing his job. (Every office has one these days.)
Affecting the plummiest of British accents, Goodman enters like a canal barge, his considerable girth rendered gigantic in a dandified jacket-and-jodhpurs combo that's the most hilarious of Jane Greenwood's superb costumes. Pozzo clings to the rituals of a rarefied society that's clearly extinct; his mistreatment of Lucky doesn't hide their interdependence, and his hauteur can't conceal that master and servant are equally miserable.
Glover is astonishing. Almost unrecognizable, he staggers and drools, snickering quietly at Pozzo's blather and fiercely guarding his last shreds of dignity. At one point, Lucky is ordered to dance and think for the master's acquaintances, cranking up into his seemingly nonsensical Joycean rant with such force he gets a nosebleed, while Didi and Gogo bob about trying to shut him down. The scene vies only with Goodman's beached-walrus routine as the production's comic high point.
Doing his best stage work in years, Lane expertly threads anguish, fear and crushing exhaustion into Gogo's sense of mischief; he's perhaps spared from abject horror by the glitch in his short-term memory, but he's cognizant enough to know there's no relief in sight, and it's heartbreaking. There are no extraneous touches in Lane's disciplined performance, which conveys as much careful reflection as impeccable technique, managing to play a single note as both funny and sorrowful.
Irwin acts with his entire body, every grimace and nervous flicker of his eyes suggesting some terrible knowledge Didi is fighting to keep hidden from his friend. The failure to recognize the actor's subtle work in "Rachel Getting Married" during last year's film honors was a glaring oversight. His performance here reveals even finer nuances without the aid of closeups, whether he's gasping in shock while pinned under Goodman's formidable bulk or trembling with joy at the handful of leaves that have sprouted overnight on the tree, suggesting that life may go on after all.
Didi's superior recall of the previous day's events and those of the one before makes him the most poignant of these four figures wandering in the wilderness. Irwin's delivery of the plaintive near-final speech in which he contemplates the agonizing crawl toward the grave is deeply moving. "Tell him you saw me and that ... that you saw me," he urges Godot's envoy (Cameron Clifford). Didi's terror is overwhelming, but he continues to crave that simple validation to assure himself he's still alive.