May 2, 2009

A "Waiting for Godot" Worth Waiting For

O.K. So when did it become Waiting for God-oh instead of Waiting for Gudo, which is, like, what I’ve been calling Samuel Beckett’s existential classic since my free-thinking English teacher Mrs. Pease sneaked it onto our reading list during my junior year in high school? She rhymed the name in the title with the Bordeaux section of France whose wines I would grow up to crave. But a friend, recently back from seeing the London production with Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart corrected me and Mrs. Pease. “Now we know how it should be pronounced,” he said. “It’s God-oh.”

That’s also the way they pronounce it in the fascinating new revival of Waiting for Godot that just opened at Studio 54. I suppose both productions are underscoring the point that it is God whom the characters, like even the most fickle believers, are simultaneously longing for and fearing to see. (Click here to read an interview with the show’s director Anthony Page on why he chose that pronunciation.)

But however you say the title, every theater lover should see this essential part of the dramatic canon at least once. I’ve longed to see it from the time I was 16. I thought I had hit the jackpot when I managed to wangle a ticket to the now-legendary 1988 Lincoln Center production directed by Mike Nichols and starring Robin Williams and Steve Martin as the two bowler-hatted tramps Estragon and Vladimir, who spend their lives vainly waiting for the arrival of the elusive Godot. But I was disappointed.

Beckett creates a situation that is absurd in every sense of the word. Nothing happens. Except that the same nothingness happens over and over again—just as in life, Beckett is saying. (Click here to read two letters the playwright wrote about the play.) The challenge for actors is to keep the humor and the despair of these circumstances in balance. Although Martin achieved a few moments of grace-filled equilibrium, most of the 1988 production leaned too heavily on laughs, with Williams even throwing in shtick from his old “Mork & Mindy” sitcom. So it is particularly gratifying to see Page and the stars of the current production, Nathan Lane as Estragon and Bill Irwin as Vladimir, capture the true spirit of the play.

Both Lane and Irwin are accomplished clowns, albeit of different provenance. I had expected Irwin, the circus-trained performer who has gone on to dramatic acclaim in the Edward Albee plays, The Goat, or Who is Sylvia? and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, to have the easiest time in Godot. He had been in the 1988 production playing the nearly silent role of Lucky, the ironically-named slave who is constantly abused by Pozzo, the overbearing traveler with whom Estragon and Vladimir cross paths, and Irwin has said that he has yearned to play one of the main roles ever since then. (Click here to read an interview about his history with Godot).

But Lane turned out to be the revelation for me.
Lane, of course, honed his comedic genius on the stage and his hilarious turn in The Producers really did make him the king of Broadway. I know that he is also a fine actor but I had worried that he might stray the way Williams and Martin did, going for the jokes. But his performance not only manages to please the galleries but to plumb the depths of Estragon’s desperation.

There are also bravura supporting performances. John Goodman uses his incredible bulk to create an imposing Pozzo. Friends who have worked with the actor, most famous for his role in the old “Roseanne” sitcom, say he is a perfectionist given to literally banging his head against a wall when he feels he hasn’t fully realized a part, but even he should be pleased with his work here. (Click here to read a New York Times profile about his preparation for the role.) And John Glover’s groveling and slobbering Lucky is so creepy and wretched that I could hardly stand to look at him. Which, I suppose you’d have to say, is proof of his convincing performance.

This isn’t, however, a perfect production. Both my husband K and my theatergoing buddy Bill argue that the main characters, played by Lane and Irwin, are too similar. In the original 1956 production, the serious actor E.G. Marshall played Vladimir and the serious clown Bert Lahr, the Cowardly Lion in “The Wizard of Oz” and father of The New Yorker theater critic John Lahr, played Estragon and both won praise from the New York Times critic Brooks Atkinson for their “glowing” performances.

I agree that the distinctions between the instinctual and yet pessimistic Estragon and the intellectual but optimistic Vladimir should have been made sharper in this production, but it still seems to me that this Waiting for Godot is the one that I had been waiting for.

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