TO LAUGH, YES, BUT TO FEEL THE PAIN, EVEN BETTER
by Harvey Perr
published May 1, 2009
Waiting For Godot
now playing on Broadway at Studio 54
His shoes don’t fit. His feet smell. He doesn’t know where he is. Or how long he’s been there. He wishes it were over. He knows
that whatever it is he is living through is unsupportable. Even Christ, crucified, had a more merciful death. He sits on a rock,
disconsolate and in the throes of agony. That is Estragon.
He’s still got his brain. It helps him through the day. He needs all the resources he can find within himself to keep going. He is
desperate. Knowledge, he has begun to understand, will not, by itself, sustain him. It may be that it no longer serves its purpose. The
last vestige of a idea – that Godot will show up and make the ending easier – is just that: the last vestige of an idea. But he’s got to
hold on. For Estragon’s sake if nothing else. That is Vladimir.
No, there’s nothing remotely funny about these two tramps – Gogo and Didi, as they have affectionately called each other since
1955, when they first appeared together in Samuel Beckett’s earliest great play, Waiting for
Godot – or of their creator’s vision of them, and yet, from the beginning, they had the power to make us laugh. What is funnier, they
seem to be asking, than struggling through this miasma we call life? What more cosmic joke is there than death itself? Yes, Gogo and Didi
have become the clown princes of avant-garde theater, funnier with each new production. Depending on how you look at it, they have reached
either the zenith or the nadir of comic possibility in the Roundabout Theatre Company’s schizophrenic revival.
At the performance I attended, the play seemed to still be in rehearsal, moving uncertainly from transition to transition, sure of
only one thing: how to make the play as entertaining as possible. That in itself is no crime, unless, of course, in the process, you forget
the play that Beckett wrote.
Gogo and Didi are in despair but they know what games to play to keep each other amused; they are like the two halves of Chaplin
at war with each other (which is, after all, what Laurel and Hardy were) and when they are engaged in their games, there is a bit of
vaudeville shtick about them. But that is very different than making them literally former vaudevilleans whose connection to each other is
remembering their old routines. In this production, they are not bound by the emotional ties that have kept them together for so long on
this ache of a journey; they are bound instead by how they’ve performed together. That means that Nathan Lane, who plays Gogo, and Bill
Irwin, who plays Didi, get a chance to do all sorts of cute stuff that has the audience howling. But it keeps us alienated from whom they
really are. Funny how turning literal can keep one at arm’s length from reality.
Irwin makes a gorgeously vivid attempt to capture the way a man’s spine collapses even as he tries to stand erect. There is a
stringency to his verbal interpretation, too, that careens from clarity to confusion. It is a unique approach, clearly Irwin’s own and yet
unlike anything Irwin has done before, as revealing of Beckett’s intentions as his George was revealing of Edward Albee’s intentions in
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Irwin is finding
his way; what he needs is a partner. But a partner in hell, not a partner in show biz.
Lane gets the look, the posture. When he’s depressed, with his mournfully downcast eyes, the well runs deep. But, ready at a
second’s notice to provide his audience with the kind of pleasure they expect from him, he drops the pose. He’s up. He’s down. Gogo
disappears and Max Bialystock pops up. Irwin provides the anchor, as Didi should, but it’s hard to keep propping up someone who is all too
ready to take charge.
Into their lives, for a nicely extended time in the first act and a far too brief time in the second, come Pozzo – a hearty symbol
of the ugliness of the real world Didi and Gogo are no longer a part of – and his speechless slave, Lucky, who does his master’s bidding at
the pull of a leash.
John Goodman is still struggling with the part of Pozzo, but there’s a fascinating character inside which, if released, and if it
becomes part of the play rather than someone standing outside it, will be not only a wonderful invention but a wonderfully funny one, too.
John Glover’s Lucky has already found its way, and in the literal approach that Anthony Page has taken in his direction, gives Lucky’s
lunatic speech (once he is given permission to speak) a clarity and sharpness it’s rarely had before that encapsulates all the madness of a
brain overloaded with minutiae. It is a shame that Glover’s final moments are obscured by the desperate comic hysteria generated by Irwin
and especially Lane in their attempts to stop him. Once in a while, even if it’s laughter you’re after, it is good to have a moment in which
the audience, no matter how briefly, is horrified. Glover is both hilarious and horrifying. There is no need to destroy a moment like that.
If nothing else, it is unfair not only to the play but to the actor.
Santo Loquasto’s set is sturdy and handsome, a battlement against whatever lies on the other side of it. The always resourceful
Jane Greenwood, proving there is no end to her imagination, balances the period perfection of Accent
on Youth with the caked and muddied and painterly costumes she has provided for the tramps and especially for the extravagantly witty
Edwardian suit she has created for Pozzo.
Of course, all Didi and Gogo need is a tree. And they need each other. They will surely find those again in future productions.
Waiting For Godot will be around as long as the theater is around. One just hopes that it
doesn’t insist on being more of a crowd-pleaser than was its aim this time around.
harveyperr @ stageandcinema.com
all photos are by Joan Marcus