Thursday, April 30, 2009

Mostly Beckett

Waiting for Godot
Written by Samuel Beckett
Directed by Anthony Page
Starring Bill Irwin, Nathan Lane, John Goodman, John Glover

Performances April 3-July 5, 2009
The Roundabout Theatre @ Studio 54
254 West 54th Street

Lane and Irwin in
Waiting for Godot

(photo: Joan Marcus)
In director Anthony Page's generally solid new staging of Waiting for Godot, quibbles can—and will—be made over various flaws, especially by purists who envision their own perfect production of Becket‘s minimalist, existentialist classic.

But Page can be commended for keeping the text front and center, unlike the last high-profile Godot in New York, where Mike Nichols presided over a circus starring Steve Martin and Robin Williams as the dueling and duetting tramps, Estragon (Gogo) and Vladimir (Didi). Nichols mined every line, every action, every situation for belly laughs—and Williams, with his cartload of voices, mannerisms and accents, was all wrong for Beckett‘s yearning but hopeful play.

That’s not to say that there aren't jokes in Godot, but Beckett's laughter is the antithesis of what passes for television sitcom humor. As the tramps await the never-arriving Godot, they are standing in for all of humanity’s eternal quest for a Supreme Being to give all of our lives meaning, but they are also very specific people: two friends who rely on each other more each day in order to survive the next few hours, minutes, seconds.

As the tramps, Nathan Lane and Bill Irwin bring very different comedic sensibilities to their roles: Lane the boisterous, spotlight-hogging leading man, Irwin the physically gifted mime turned actor. Although Lane doesn't oversell the gags or punch lines like Williams did all those years ago, every time he opens his mouth, rolls his eyes or makes an exaggerated gesture, it's Nathan Lane and not Beckett's Estragon. That's not necessarily bad: Lane’s polished delivery, fine sense of comic rhythm and timing all help sell this Estragon to the audience.

Irwin‘s Vladimir, on the other hand, is most comfortable with the play’s purely physical humor. Mimicking the behavior of the arrogant master Pozzo and his beaten-down servant Lucky is one such moment; another is when the two tramps quickly pass three bowler hats about their heads. Irwin is most in his element when he can fall back on his mime days of yore: when he speaks, however (and Beckett gave Vladimir Didi most of the devastatingly funny-sad lines), his thin voice swallows up many of these jewels.

If Lane and Irwin are a variably pleasant team, their acquaintances Pozzo and Lucky are in more assured hands. Although he lacks upper-class hauteur, John Goodman’s scene-stealing Pozzo has a booming voice and outsized personality to match his bulk, while John Glover finds as much pathos in his servant Lucky’s single blast of dialogue—spitting out the accumulated knowledge swimming in his head—as the two stars mine from Beckett’s devastating ending amidst civilization’s devastation.

Still, this Godot should be seen and partly admired, abetted by Santo Loquasto's desolate tree—whose several Act II green leaves say much about Becket’s guarded worldview—although his elaborate rock-formation set is more Bryce Canyon than Beckettland. On the mark is John Kaczorowski's magisterial lighting, which moves from sunshine to moonshine in the blink of an eye.

At bottom, Director Page understands that Waiting for Godot is a comedy of despair tempered by hope, which is what we see, for the most part, onstage at Studio 54.

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