Waiting for Godot
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
May 2, 2009
I was disappointed by Roundabout Theatre Company's new revival of Waiting for Godot. This is not to say the production isn't valid or isn't good; I just didn't like it.
There are many things one might take from Beckett's play given its remarkable language and wide-ranging philosophical explorations (not to mention its central mystery: who or what are its central characters, the hobos Estragon and Vladimir, waiting for, exactly?). What I have cherished above all, I think, has been the play's essential optimism—that for all the suffering that humans must endure, somehow it is endurable, especially because we do not have to endure alone. Gogo and Didi (as they call each other) quarrel and bicker and several times during the play hypothesize that they'd be better off on their own. But the play's final image is of the two of them together, inert but inextricably linked.
Nathan Lane and Bill Irwin, two actors whose work I have long admired, are Estragon and Vladimir in this Godot. There are individual moments in their performances that feel transporting: Irwin has a couple of occasions to do the kind of physical theater shtick that made his reputation (e.g., the classic hat bit where he tries on different toppers in rapid succession) and these are blissful interludes that I wished could go on longer. And Lane—until he's allowed to indulge himself with a host of crowd-pleasing antics in Act Two—conveys the sweet befuddlement of his innocent character quite beautifully. But—and this is a really BIG but—the two exude no chemistry together whatsoever. I was not convinced that this Didi and Gogo even knew each other well, let alone that they had been constant companions for, as they say, some 30 years.
The other two important characters in the play, Pozzo and Lucky (a master and slave whom our heroes encounter in each of the play's two acts), are played by John Goodman and John Glover. Goodman's performance in Act I feels like a tour de force; after the meager sparks ignited by Lane and Irwin, Goodman's explosive bombast is welcome and galvanizing. He has moments where his delicacy and precision, which so belie his massive presence, induce a great laughter of recognition; these were for me the high points of the production. Glover, meanwhile, shows us the cowardice and malice of the slave.
The effect of all of these portrayals is to emphasize the bleak, nihilist streak in the play. But there's nothing soulful that ever balances this, and so consequently, the hopefulness that I talked about earlier is absent. This, I presume, is what director Anthony Page intends; it's a valid interpretation, but doesn't it diminish the profundity of this immense work?
Santo Loquasto's set is not the featureless landscape (save a single tree) that Beckett's stage directions call for, and I think this is to the production's detriment. Makeup designer Angelina Avallone and costume designer Jane Greenwood have gone to great lengths to show us the characters' ill-fortune, which seemed to me to make them less universal.
This is a Godot whose lack of faith in humanity makes it feel appropriate for the era that we have (hopefully) just completed. I certainly felt very little resonance in it, and I was completely prepared to. Oh, well: nothing to be done. More Godots, and more theatre of every stripe, awaits.