Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - April 30, 2009
Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett. Directed by Anthony Page. Set design by Santo Loquasto. Costume design by Jane Greenwood. Lighting design by Peter Kaczorowski. Sound design by Dan Moses Schreier. Hair & wig design by Tom Watson. Fight Director by Thomas Schall. Cast: Nathan Lane, Bill Irwin, John Goodman, John Glover, with Cameron Clifford, Matthew Schechter.
“Perhaps you weren’t, but it’s the way of doing it that counts.”
These two lines, uttered back to back by two of Broadway’s leading lights (and leading comic talents), Nathan Lane and Bill Irwin, apply as much to Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot as they do the new Roundabout Theatre Company revival of it that just opened at Studio 54. This production, which has been directed by Anthony Page, says nothing new about this existential daymare of a play. But it says that nothing with such satisfied joie de vivre, you occasionally think you’re seeing a newer and more profound take than you’ve seen (or read) countless times before.
But as Vladimir (Irwin) and Estragon (Lane) stand by the lone tree that ornaments Santo Loquasto’s mountain-pass-clearing set, it doesn’t take long for you to realize that you’re hearing the same old story being uttered by voices both alien and familiar. You seldom see either performer in a play as, well, off as this one: Irwin occupies himself with clowning and occasionally sobering acting (he won a Tony for his George in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? in 2005), and Lane is a musical-theatre comedy lead of the highest order (he earned his most recent Tony for his iconic Max Bialystock in The Producers). But even playing Beckett’s edge-of-the-abyss tramps, they can’t mask their inherent good-natured populist leanings.
That makes this evening exactly what you’d expect, for better or worse. Irwin is the classical classy straight man, possessing of a fluid set of limbs and a galloping gait that serves him well when Vladimir must dash offstage for an emergency urination. Lane, the red-faced laugh getter who can tone things down when he has to, is saddled with most of the more visible physical bits that particularize this pre-post-apocalyptic world. (Eating a sickly carrot, unpeeling his boots, and wrestling an uncooperative whip are among his tasks here.) Early in Act II, both let the spirit of entertainment carry them into a elegant little soft-shoe.
That’s what it feels like here, but not particularly because of Irwin and Lane. Page, who directed Irwin in his largely excellent Virginia Woolf and staged a markedly less impressive Cat on a Hot Tin Roof two years before, hasn’t discovered how to translate Beckett’s haunting conundrum of a play into a specific dramatic statement. The elaborate rock-strewn set (which looks like a first cousin to that of the misbegotten revival of Desire Under the Elms that just opened), Jane Greenwood’s ash-can chic costumes, and the conspicuous lack of scripts notwithstanding, this production has all the vitality and clarity of a staged reading.
Unlike many of Beckett’s works, Waiting for Godot does not direct itself. The precise relationship between Vladimir and Estragon and between their now-and-again society-defying counterparts Pozzo (John Goodman) and Lucky (John Glover), does not exist only on the page. But it’s crucial for placing the action within whatever context will best convey it. For the play’s 1956 premiere, the looming shadow of despair could have been the atomic bomb or the Cold War itself. Today, it may be read as terrorism or the crumbling economy that seems poised to at least attempt to thrust us back into the Stone Age.
The individual viewer can - and must - supply some of this, but the director must apply his own point of view. Aside from decreeing the pronunciation of the title character’s name as GOD-oh, thus underscoring the character’s just-around-the-bend religious significance, Page has contributed little. He offers no concrete sense of where Vladimir and Estragon have been, or where they expect to go, or how itinerant master and leashed slave Pozzo and Lucky - who respectively go blind and dumb in the second act - cope with the same challenges. The young shepherd boy (Cameron Clifford and Matthew Schechter alternate in the role) who arrives to deliver a message of spirit-crushing but transcendental importance must be declaratively identified if his few lines are to have any impact; he isn’t, and they don’t.
At the performance I attended, Clifford - whose age looks to be in the single digits - had no grounding for his lines, and was dressed in inconclusively simple country attire not befitting Loquasto’s barren stone outcropping. Goodman, though thick of stature and firm of charisma, makes hardly more of an impression as the upper-rung mover-and-shaker who doesn’t recognize when he loses control. Glover delivers Lucky’s key gibberish rant with an expert breast stroke through its narrative stream of consciousness, but relies more on his character’s constant drooling and glazed-over stare than he does a more complete vision of who and why Lucky is.
The same is, more or less, true of everyone. But their strong personalities and committed approaches cleverly disguise the lack of anything below their disheveled surfaces - until you stop to think about it. Page has wisely allowed as little time as possible for that, filling (or letting his actors fill) the silences between words and syllables with a vibrancy that guides you gaily down the path to nowhere on which everyone is in one way or another treading.
But because Page imparts no real sense of where that road originated or where it’s going, this Waiting for Godot feels more unfinished than it does either a fully articulated triumph or tragedy. Vladimir and Estragon may be rooted to the spot by the crippling uncertainty of their past and future, but that’s no reason their show has to be. Still, it’s sad that when Lane explains what being in this place is like - "Nothing happens. Nobody comes. Nobody goes. It’s awful.” - the great talents involved can’t prevent you from agreeing more than you’ll wish you had to.