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Notes from a Crritic

By (June 1, 2009) No Comment

Waiting for Godot

By Samuel Beckett
Directed by Anthony Page, at Studio 54

Pozzo, the tyrannical slave-master of Waiting for Godot, is not one of the theater’s most sympathetic characters. He is Samuel Beckett’s definitive portrait of the oversized ego run amok, a character who behaves unconscionably yet demands attention for it all the same. In the first act he abuses his slave Lucky and treats the play’s heroes, Estragon and Vladimir, with contempt; in the second act he becomes blind and helpless, yet remains unceasingly obnoxious.

In the hands of John Goodman, however, who plays him in the current Broadway revival of Godot, he is more than sympathetic. In fact, he’s downright likable. Perhaps it is his bizarre accent, a faux upper class tone that strives for plummy English gentility but lands somewhere closer to Tennessee automobile plant owner. It certainly has something to do with the timeless physical spectacle of seeing a big man squeezed into little boots sitting on a tiny stool. But most of all it is Goodman’s obvious, lip-smacking enthusiasm for his role, a charming quality which he brings to his best movie parts, usually in the service of the Coen brothers. (John Turturro, another Coen Brothers regular, killed in Beckett’s Endgame last spring—coincidence?) From the moment Goodman comes on stage, preceded by the long rope that tethers him to Lucky, one can’t help but smile and share in his enjoyment.

Samuel Beckett, illustrated by Rachel Burgess

This makes for a good time, but Goodman’s portrayal doesn’t capture the full range of Pozzo’s character. He doesn’t really frighten or disgust us. His Pozzo is a buffoon from start to finish, albeit a very cruel one. He draws laughs commanding Lucky, and makes a comic art of pulling hungrily on his pipe. Later, lying flat on his belly like a beached orca, intermittently bawling “Help,” his wretchedness reaches a peak of physical comedy excess that recalls no one so much as Chris Farley. Goodman’s bellows and creaks are familiar from his roles as the cartoonish baby-napper in Raising Arizona and the one-eyed bible salesman in O Brother, Where Art Thou?, making his Pozzo maximally entertaining but minimally surprising. So it goes with this cast, that also features Nathan Lane and Bill Irwin as Estragon and Vladimir—they’re a cozy bunch to pass the time with by a tree near some rocks, but they never quite get you to look into the abyss that looms beyond their jokes and quibbles.

This may seem like sneezing at a good thing. Lane and Irwin and Co. have made Beckett too enjoyable—there must be something wrong! High praise is certainly due for this production, fluidly directed by Anthony Page at Studio 54. Even 50 plus years after it first opened in New York, putting Waiting for Godot on Broadway remains a risk. There is a very thin line between teasing the audience with the threat of agonizing boredom and actually boring the audience which the text of Godot so deliberately tries to do when it strands its characters with nothing to say. This production is never boring, but even in as snappy a performance as this one, groans and restless rustlings surface amidst the playgoers. During intermission, you can overhear comments that probably aren’t much different than the ones that first greeted the show on its Broadway debut: “Well, I like it, but I just don’t see where it’s going” and “I hope it picks up a bit in the second act.” Seeing Godot performed versus reading it is a lesson in the way that an audience transforms a dramatic work—Vladimir and Estragon’s anxiousness is heightened to its maddening degree by the pressure of acting out their daily drudgery in front of others. Onstage, their meta-critical asides about their enjoyment of each other’s performances takes on an organic, vaudevillian quality that isn’t apparent in the text itself, and the famous argument ending insult—“Crritic!”—lands an emotional punch. It is more than simply the voice of the grumpy playwright breaking onto the stage; for these self-consciously artificial characters, the critic is the most damaging figure of all. The act of waiting for Godot is what gives their lives meaning, but if a critic pronounces Waiting for Godot meaningless, well, that’s it.

Nathan Lane, John Goodman, and Bill Irwin in Waiting for Godot

This production has managed to please the critics for the most part, and it does so by adhering to some old-fashioned virtues, most notably, by making the audience care about the relationship between Estragon and Vladimir. The tramps of Waiting for Godot traditionally evoke the pathos and worn-in affection of an old married couple, and Lane and Irwin emphasize the tenderness and warmth of that relationship quite poignantly without tipping over into sentimentality or campiness. It helps that Nathan Lane looks like and sounds like a teddy bear, even under a thick layer of stage muck and armed with Beckett’s graveyard wit, and that Irwin holds himself together like a bashful toddler when Estragon makes him laugh, inflaming his apparent urinary condition.

The final tableau of the play has been jiggered to gently draw on the heartstrings. Following the silly business with Estragon’s pants (“You want me to pull off my trousers?”), we are confronted with the bleak conclusion. Vladimir says, “Well, shall we go?” and Estragon responds, “Yes, let’s go,” but, as the text says, “They do not move.” In this production, right before the lights go out, the tramps reach out and grasp each other’s hands. The audience lets out a relieved breath. They’ll go on! This is welcome, but makes those keeping score at home wonder how ol’ Sam would feel about it. Would he really have spit at this clever little moment of human reassurance? Possibly. But for the most part, the team manages to avoid the shenanigans that went down during the last major New York production in 1988, when Beckett was still with us, in which Robin Williams felt obliged to hum the theme from The Twilight Zone onstage, among other manic interjections. Of course, I wasn’t there (tickets were expensive; I was three), but I’m grateful nonetheless that there wasn’t a perceived need to provide “updated” thrills to the play.

Nathan Lane does bring a certain amount of undisguised Broadway zinginess to his Estragon (or Gogo, as he is called by Vladimir, or Didi), but it seems in service to Beckett’s vision of apocalyptic clowning rather than audience pandering. Lane is fishing for laughs—his nth iteration of “We’re WAITING for GODOT!” drips with Krusty the Clown flop-sweat—but he stays just shy of the winking self-referentiality that could sink the whole enterprise. He plays Gogo as a creature cracking jokes as a survival mechanism, someone who depends on his complaints and annoyances to keep himself from actual despair. It is Gogo who suggests that he and Didi hang themselves for lack of anything better to do, and he grows giddy with enthusiasm about the prospect once Didi explains that doing so will give them erections. Lane approaches suicide with such childlike glee that the darkness Beckett’s joke is neutralized and brightened—they could be contemplating building a tree house for all the consideration given to the act.

Irwin provides a weird contrast to Lane’s general abandon. Though hardly a straight man, his off kilter voice inflections give his nonsense the illusion of nuance. Didi is the thinking man’s absurdist tramp, and Irwin, looking a bit like Ed Norton on The Honeymooners, uses a modulating array of accents and attitudes to convey a wider breadth of thought than Gogo. I first took this inability to settle on a mode of speech to be a weakness in Irwin’s characterization, but he is far too sly and experienced an actor for his vocalisms to be anything but intentional. His Didi is a hustler-grifter tramp, with a voice for any situation. Irwin is able to deliver his colloquial punch-lines in one register (“I once knew a family named Gozzo. The mother had the clap”) and his eloquent mini-soliloquies in another (“…at this place, at this moment in time, all mankind is us, whether we like it or not.”) This last in particular has real weight. Irwin, so cruel and sharp in the 2006 revival of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and so wrenchingly collapsed in last year’s film Rachel Getting Married, juggles Beckett’s language with great dexterity and heft.

The cast plus John Glover as Lucky

Irwin played Lucky in the 1988 New York production, and he is succeeded by John Glover in this one. Glover’s physicality is extraordinary—his Lucky suggests the brain of a horse transplanted into a reanimated corpse. Each time he staggers across the stage doing Pozzo’s bidding, one fears it will be the death of him. You can see his neck straining and his sallow cheeks contracting even from the second to last row of the theater. Unfortunately, from that vantage point, it is harder to hear his famous speech, which he delivers in a low, clipped Shakespearean tenor, perfectly enunciating each individual word at a steady pace. I was braced for an eruption, and Glover instead provided a seepage as he staggered across the stage, drawing laughs as Lane and Irwin struggled to stay out of his path. I had to lean in close to catch the words, and very nearly shushed my seatmates for laughing.

As the speech and the rest of the play went on though, I realized that such grumpiness was unnecessary in the face of such a pleasurable performance. After all, the text would still be there on the page when I got home, undiluted by years and uninterrupted by the deserved enjoyment of the audience. Godot is a work that draws strength onstage from its paucity of resources—from the barrenness of its language and from its limited range of subjects. In the scant two hours that it plays out, we pick up from it the little bits that we can understand and enjoy. We shouldn’t worry about missing anything. We’ll be acting it out for the rest of our lives.

Andrew Martin is an editorial intern at The New York Review of Books. He has worked for Publisher’s Weekly, Newsweek On Air, and Andrew Cuomo. His previous reviews for Open Letters were on Jack Kerouac and the Notorious B.I.G.

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