Friday, May 1, 2009

Waiting for Godot


By Samuel Beckett. Directed by Anthony Page. Studio 54. (CLOSED)

Though a few critics were not won over by Roundabout's production of Waiting for Godot, finding that it succeeds more at comedy than pathos, a sizeable majority consider this to be a first-rate production. Many critics think Nathan Lane as Estragon is doing his best work since The Producers and give him credit for toning down his usual schtick. Bill Irwin as Vladimir gets equally positive reviews, but critics differ on the effectiveness on the chemistry between the two. John Goodman and John Glover as Pozzo and Lucky get the most glowing reviews of all, with many surprised by Goodman's performance. Critics are mixed on Santo Loquasto's sets, seemingly having had enough boulders after Desire Under the Elms, but love Jane Greenwood's tattered costumes.

Variety A+
(David Rooney) Affecting the plummiest of British accents, Goodman enters like a canal barge, his considerable girth rendered gigantic in a dandified jacket-and-jodhpurs combo that's the most hilarious of Jane Greenwood's superb costumes... Glover is astonishing. Almost unrecognizable, he staggers and drools, snickering quietly at Pozzo's blather and fiercely guarding his last shreds of dignity... Doing his best stage work in years, Lane expertly threads anguish, fear and crushing exhaustion into Gogo's sense of mischief; he's perhaps spared from abject horror by the glitch in his short-term memory, but he's cognizant enough to know there's no relief in sight, and it's heartbreaking. There are no extraneous touches in Lane's disciplined performance, which conveys as much careful reflection as impeccable technique, managing to play a single note as both funny and sorrowful. Irwin acts with his entire body, every grimace and nervous flicker of his eyes suggesting some terrible knowledge Didi is fighting to keep hidden from his friend. The failure to recognize the actor's subtle work in "Rachel Getting Married" during last year's film honors was a glaring oversight. His performance here reveals even finer nuances without the aid of closeups, whether he's gasping in shock while pinned under Goodman's formidable bulk or trembling with joy at the handful of leaves that have sprouted overnight on the tree, suggesting that life may go on after all.

Wall Street Journal A+
(Terry Teachout) Among the virtues of this "Godot" is the way in which it brings out the best that each member of the cast has in him. This is especially welcome in the case of Mr. Lane, who has been coasting ever since "The Producers." No more. As Estragon, the tramp with sore feet who was first played in this country by Bert Lahr, the Cowardly Lion of "The Wizard of Oz," Mr. Lane has renewed himself: His acting in "Godot" is fresh and unforced. Instead of going for the laughs, he simply lets them happen -- and they do, in blessed abundance... Not having been at the rehearsals, I can't tell you what Mr. Page did to coax such magnificent performances out of his cast. I can only report that his staging, like David Cromer's Off-Broadway production of "Our Town," seems to show you the play itself, plain and true. Likewise Santo Loquasto's set, a stony mountain pass whose sole ornament is a near-bare hanging tree (I was reminded of the rock-strewn hills of Lone Pine, the desert village in California where so many of Randolph Scott's Westerns were filmed).

Backstage A+
(David Sheward) It's a play about boredom, but if the cast and director focus on that, the production becomes boring—a trap many have fallen into. In the current Roundabout Theatre Company production at Studio 54—the former disco is an ironic location for this desolate comedy-drama—director Anthony Page and his brilliant cast neatly sidestep that pitfall and dance a merry gig around it. Nathan Lane and Bill Irwin, two of our most skilled stage clowns, find the zestful comic joy and soul-crushing despair in Beckett's sorrowful everymen. Dressed in rags by costume designer Jane Greenwood and covered with dirt, wounds, and scars, they look as if they've been through hell—in most productions, these facial details are overlooked, and the tramps appear to be neatly shaved actors in funny clothes... But the real revelation here is John Goodman as the self-important Pozzo. Resembling a low-rent Sydney Greenstreet, Goodman dominates his scenes as he imposes his gigantic ego on the clueless tramps. When he returns as blind as a bat and falls in a heap in the second act, he resembles an enormous paralyzed bullfrog. He's unable to move but still demands to be the center of attention.

Newsday A+
(Linda Winer) This is bliss - seriously - theatrical and existential bliss. Anthony Page has directed four mesmerizing actors - and also reined in four idiosyncratic personalities - for a peak event that honors Samuel Beckett's 1953 masterwork by living fully and hilariously in the hope and futile inertia of his great mortal joke. Have two such empathetic creatures ever made classic clowning as profound as do Bill Irwin and Nathan Lane, brilliantly inhabiting the rags and the bowler hats of the 20th century's apocalyptic tramps? Has any man-mountain ever careened with more incredibly scary lightness of being than John Goodman as slave master Pozzo, rolling astonishingly on his bully-boy belly and bleating like an unmoored Macy's balloon in the wind? And has a man ever embodied the shadow of an insipient cadaver with more dripping, drooling, wheezing finesse than John Glover as the beast-of-burden named (a perfect Beckett joke) Lucky? Not in my experience.

USA Today A+
(Elysa Gardner) In the new Roundabout Theatre Company production (* * * ½ out of four) at Studio 54, Beckett's hobos Estragon and Vladimir — Gogo and Didi, as they call each other — are played by Nathan Lane and Bill Irwin, with John Goodman in a supporting role. But like the current revival of Eugene Ionesco's Exit the King, this Godot is noteworthy less for its cast members' marquee value than their ability to make the existential, universal questions posed by the text accessible to a mass audience... Under Anthony Page's brisk but sensitive direction, Lane and Irwin mine the humor and pathos in this simple but richly symbolic dilemma. Watching Irwin's thoughtful, restless Didi and the sad clown that is Lane's needy Gogo clash with and cling to each other is like watching two boys in a sandbox, learning primal struggles that will never stop informing their lives. When a red-faced Lane recoils from Irwin, telling him, "Don't touch me," then in the next breath pleads, "Stay with me," the terse lines speak volumes about the need for and impossibility of human connection.

The Hollywood Reporter A+
(Frank Scheck) Beckett's challenging works often go down much easier when presented with generous doses of humor, and this production directed by Anthony Page fortunately doesn't stint on it. Vladimir and Estragon are played by Bill Irwin and Nathan Lane, and these veteran comic actors apply their vaudeville-style skills to excellent effect. Lane infuses his line readings with his trademark snappish delivery, bellowing voice and perfect comic timing, while the circus-trained Irwin enhances his gentler turn with his expert miming and physical clowning talents. Their iconic characters might be desperately and pathetically waiting in vain for the mysterious Godot, but in these talented performers' hands, they provide plenty of fun for the audience along the way. Not that the evening doesn't effectively convey the play's more chilling elements. Here they're largely provided by John Goodman and John Glover, whose Pozzo and Lucky are truly awesome sights to behold.

Time Out New York A+
(David Cote) Page hews faithfully to Beckett’s dramaturgical strictures, but he allows softening bits of humanity around the edges of the flinty gloom. For example, in the play’s final tableau, our tramps stand frozen, unable to go, yet they reach out and hold hands before final blackout. Were Beckett alive, he might forbid the business as sentimental, but it suits this production, which balances overt theatricality and (dare I say it?) an almost naturalistic approach to the world. Lane sneaks in bits of camp shtick, but never out of proportion to the humor needed to leaven Beckett’s despairing philosophic outlook.

DC Theatre Scene A+
(Richard Seff) John Goodman, he of the huge girth, makes us wonder how he ever played Roseanne Barr’s blue collar husband, for in this he roars with a highly cultivated British accent, and he lets loose with movements and facial gyrations worthy of a master clown. John Glover’s Lucky (if ever a characters was misnamed) is another portrait in this great character actor’s gallery. I’ve met many of those characters in other plays, but this one has to be his master creation. Secreting all sorts of bodily fluids from all visible orifices, he epitomizes and brings to life all nine circles of hell. Yet he’s funny! When his master demands that he dance, he dances, and you ain’t seen nothin’ like it since Angela Lansbury choreographed herself in the current revival of Blithe Spirit.

Bergen Record A
(Robert Feldberg) Rather smartly, I think, Nathan Lane and Bill Irwin, in the revival of “Godot” that opened Thursday night at Studio 54, have taken a middle path. They haven’t stowed their public personalities — they couldn’t really, unless they labored to disguise the ways they walk and talk — but they’ve successfully integrated them into Beckett’s creations... On Santo Loquasto’s chilling set of bare gray rocks, an apt depiction of nowhere, the two characters while away the hours talking, joking — the hat-swapping scene is worthy of the Marx Brothers — sleeping, eating, singing and, briefly, contemplating suicide.

Associated Press A
(Michael Kuchwara) It's not easy handling the comic absurdity and terrifying despair that snake hand-in-hand throughout "Waiting for Godot," but the Roundabout Theatre Company's striking revival does justice to both. That's because the cast of Samuel Beckett's 20th-century existential classic, now on view at the Roundabout's Studio 54, is headed by two accomplished clowns (Nathan Lane and Bill Irwin) who know comedy is serious business.

The Daily News A
(Joe Dziemianowicz) Director Anthony Page has put Tony winners and first-class comic actors Nathan Lane and Bill Irwin at center stage in his sterling revival. This two-man dream team is wonderfully crabby and cozy together, exactly right for a couple who've spent ages together waiting and waiting and waiting for the mysterious no-show Godot... Lane gives his best and most surprising performance in years; he's funny and moving and free of shticky old tricks. Irwin brings a shattered elegance and deep humanity as his straight-man sidekick. They're not alone in their desolate surroundings. A Humpty Dumpty-shaped John Goodman plays the masterful Pozzo, while a drooling and bedraggled John Glover is quick-witted slave Lucky. Both create vivid portraits... "Godot" has been called the most influential play of the last century. That's a lot to live up to. Wisely, this production never seems to be reaching to be profound. It's content to entertain as it communicates that life is a bedeviling, rough road. That message has lost none of its resonance in 50-some years.

(Matt Windman) Director Anthony Page has not attempted to reinvent “Godot” or infuse any new meaning. The set, depicting a rocky mountain pass instead of a lone tree and mound of dirt, is bigger and less stark than usual. But for the most part, this is an extremely traditional production of the play. But thanks to its cast, it is also a very effective and enjoyable one. Nathan Lane and Bill Irwin display fantastic chemistry together as bosom buddies Estragon and Vladimir, excelling in both the vaudeville comedy and heartbreaking melancholy aspects. While Lane’s is deeply emotional, he resists the urge to indulge in the comic shtick that has marked so many of his recent performances.

Lighting & Sound America A
(David Barbour) The smartest thing about Page's staging is its lightness of touch. The text is unsparing enough; it doesn't need underlining. Instead, the director concentrates on its humor, its flights of fancy, and its undertones of pathos, all of which are useful in keeping us engaged with the play, despite the stasis at its core. This isn't the harshest Godot I've seen -- yet, by making room for a wider emotional palette, Page allows an entryway into Beckett's desolate view of human existence... Indeed, this is the Godot to see if you have found Beckett's work to be too forbidding in the past. I almost hesitate to make this point, because I have a feeling that, in certain quarters, this production will have to endure accusations of being too audience-friendly. It is true that Page ends the play with a surprisingly sentimental gesture, in which Estragon quietly reaches out for Vladimir's hand -- it's just the kind of thing that sets the Beckett scholars into a tizzy. But by locating the laughter inside the author's graveside portrait of humanity, Page finds a way to let us taste the odd confabulation of despair and endurance that is at the play's core. It will be some time, I suspect, before anyone does better.

American Theater Web A-
(Andy Propst) Their reprieve from the monotony of their routine comes when the other two men arrive on the scene, but when they come during the second act, one even questions if they are not just another aspect of Didi and Gogo's seemingly eternal waiting game. It's cutting stuff, but the mixture of comedy and pathos is served up perfectly by Irwin, a champion interpreter of Beckett's plays. With an arch of an eyebrow, or a quick shift in his vocal tone, Irwin glides with precision through the play's often contradictory passages, communicating Didi's awareness of the futility of it all and thus, finding the heartbreaking core of the role and piece. Lane, who only occasionally reverts to what might be considered his standard-issue comic shenanigans, makes for a warm, loveable Gogo. At times, even with the blood that has dried to his face, he resembles nothing more that one of the classic "sad-face" clowns that one might associate with circuses from an era gone by. But despite a simmering fury in his performance that occasionally bubbles over, Lane's Gogo never quite inspires the same sort of empathy as Irwin's Didi.

The New York Times A-
(Ben Brantley) As a profound comedy, this “Godot” is deeply satisfying. As an emotionally moving work, it is less so, except when Mr. Goodman and Mr. Glover are onstage. That’s because while Mr. Irwin and Mr. Lane have each mapped credible paths to their roles, mostly the paths are parallel and rarely intersect... I should note that Mr. Lane and Mr. Irwin are never more convincingly allied, like people bonding in an earthquake, than when Mr. Goodman is onstage. As well they should be. Mr. Goodman’s blusteringly genteel Pozzo explodes with the nonsensical tyranny of the autocrats in Lewis Carroll’s “Alice” books. In his relationship with Mr. Glover’s superb Lucky, who suggests a broken-down horse trying to avoid the glue factory, his Pozzo embodies centuries of aristocratic entitlement and subjugation. (This is a performance that any student of class systems needs to see.) But Mr. Goodman lets us glimpse the tickling uncertainty within the stolidness. He is human, after all, which means his very foundation is doubt.

The New Yorker B+
(John Lahr) In the new production, two noted comic actors, Nathan Lane and Bill Irwin, take on the roles of Estragon and Vladimir. Whereas the old clowns were not educated men—they felt much more than they understood—Lane and Irwin are emblematic of the current, more knowing, more self-conscious breed. (Irwin even has a degree in clowning: Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Clown College, Class of ’74.) They are lucid, they get all their laughs, but the price of their cultivation is an unfortunate absence of urgency. They seem to understand more than they feel; they can’t quite reach the mad, inspired levitation of the authentic clown’s poetic suffering.
Lane and Irwin—one short and round, the other tall and lean—make a piquant comic silhouette; the contrast is meant to illustrate their characters’ personalities. Estragon is rooted in the earth, hungry, elemental; Vladimir is curious, a wanderer, the intellect. But Lane’s natural alertness tends to encroach on Irwin’s psychic territory, skewing, though not spoiling, their comic chemistry. Lane meets all the challenges of the play, except the challenge to find the terror behind his professional manic mask.

New York Post B+
(Elisabeth Vincentelli) But while Page, Irwin and Lane ably mine the material's comic potential, they come up short trying to suggest its existential dread. Goodman huffs and puffs, but projects little in the way of actual menace. Santo Loquasto's busy set, reminiscent of those rocky planets the old "Star Trek" crew always got stranded on, doesn't help, either. It's left to Glover, equally terrifying and pathetic, to suggest the incoherent void at the end of humanity, but he alone can't do it all. But that's just my interpretation. The most potent aspect of "Godot," after all, is that you can project almost any meaning onto it. Right now, there couldn't be a more provocative text for a culture such as ours, built on a need for instant gratification, a pathological fear of boredom and the seeming inability to learn from the past. It's all funny, yes, until someone gets hurt.

Bloomberg News B+
(John Simon) As Gogo, Lane goes through his customary repertoire of facial, vocal and somatic tricks, which fit in with surprising felicity, conveying much sad-clown hilarity. John Goodman is properly despotic and oily as Pozzo, particularly good when, unable to rise, he wallows on the ground like a beached whale. Lucky’s part of silent masochistic servility does not allow an actor much leeway, but John Glover accredits himself valiantly, especially in Lucky’s one outburst into a long nonsense monologue, a parody of prevailing French philosophy. My problem is with the Didi of Bill Irwin. An accomplished mime, he does well by the pantomimic aspects of this (or any) role. But here, as in other speaking parts, Irwin’s voice is too mundane and his personality colorless.

Entertainment Weekly B+
(Thom Geier) The biggest shock in this faithful and well-executed production may be just how under-the-top it is, given the casting of inveterate ham Nathan Lane and former circus clown Bill Irwin as Estragon and Vladimir, the two philosophizing tramps passing the time in a barren landscape in anticipation of the promised arrival of one Godot (here pronounced, as Beckett himself preferred, ''GOD-oh,'' to better underscore the religious subtext). Yes, the two employ all the resources of vaudeville and slapstick at various points in the show — the second act hat shuffle is particularly adept, as is Lane's fumbling demonstration with a bullwhip — but the actors' comic business never becomes antic or overwhelms the show's underlying seriousness of purpose.

The Village Voice B+
(Michael Feingold) Page's production achieves its rapport with Broadwaygoers by doing one important thing right: He's made his skillful cast play Beckett's terse text as human conversation, instead of either ornate abstract poesy or a clown routine stylized past all meaning. He's achieved particular success with Lane, whose frowsty, glum, pathetic Gogo is one of his best creations yet, and a triumph with Goodman, who conveys the self-centered meanness under Pozzo's patrician airs with scary conviction. Page has slightly less success with Irwin, whose postmodern-clown background always tempts him to formalize his speeches, and with Glover, who gets the mania of Lucky but not the pain. And in his eagerness to keep the event moving, Page has let the conversation's colloquial flow rush past the many places where Beckett's characters take their time; time is the play's essence. Even Santo Loquasto's set, imposing a rocky enclosure on Beckett's country road, seems eager to force into tighter focus a dramatic event that's meant to chill us by drifting away into infinity.

NYMag B-
(Scott Brown) And we have the remarkable John Glover as Pozzo’s slave, Lucky, whose midshow verbal download—a stew of pseudo-academic babble—becomes a jungle gym that the whole ensemble jumps on. It’s the high point of the show, which takes a good 30 minutes of the first act to uncurl itself: Irwin’s studiousness and tics take some getting used to. (As does the play’s final surprise.) This production won’t bend Broadway’s space-time continuum, but it’ll give it a little tweak, at a moment when it could use one.

The Observer D
(John Heilpern) The Bedrock Estragon and Vladimir of Mr. Lane and Mr. Irwin are one mismatched thing. But that ill-conceived set that the veteran British director has imposed on Godot is in direct contradiction to Beckett’s stated intentions. Mr. Page—not an innovator, but usually a faithful director of classic texts—has made a very uncharacteristic lapse. It need not have been decisive had Santo Loquasto’s Flintstone set design worked better than any old mundane cliché, or even been relevant to the essence of the great play itself... The performers are too much themselves. Mr. Lane’s popular note of wryly comic exasperation belongs to his own familiar persona rather than to Estragon’s bleakly tragic emotionalism. Mr. Irwin—a brilliant mime, of course—makes a lightweight, fussily overintellectualized version of the cerebral Vladimir, and key line readings are disjointedly bizarre... There are two remarkable saving graces in the new Roundabout production, however. John Goodman’s Pozzo, the fat, bullying slave-driver with a posh British accent and the temperament of a ruined child, is a fabulous echo of Peter Bull’s original blustery Pozzo of Peter Hall’s celebrated London premier of Waiting for Godot in 1955. And the excellent John Glover’s unlucky Lucky, enslaved, beaten like Ireland, barely able to walk, exhausted, dying, could scarcely be better or more affecting.

Talkin' Broadway D
(Matthew Murray) 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.

Theatermania D-
(David Finkle) An ideal production of Beckett's play -- labeled a "tragicomedy" and intrinsically funnier than is often thought -- should achieve a healthy balance between the Bard and the bawdy. Much of the dropped-trousers element is present here; but as the two-act exercise in existential angst unfolds, the profound despair in the face of dimming hope is missing. It may be that Page decided he didn't want to go heavy on the morose qualities Vladimir and Estragon share -- or that he considered them a Beckettian cliché -- but without the constant undercurrent of debilitating depression, Godot risks becoming a work about a pair of nags having at one another for far too long. Although Lane's opening line is "Nothing to be done" -- uttered while he tries to remove a tight boot -- there is an immediate feistiness to the actor's portrayal. What is also on view, unsurprisingly, is Lane's signature comic disgust. It's not wrong exactly -- Lane can usually count on it getting bursts of ticket-buyer laughter -- but it isn't right enough either. A dedicated Beckett interpreter, Irwin drops the smug devotion he's taken on about mastering the master, However, when speaking his lines, he indulges in elaborately scooped notes and odd syllabic stresses, all of which undercut too many of the script's emotional effects. F+
(Martin Denton) 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... 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?

The Toronto Star F
(Richard Ouzounian) When I first heard that Samuel Beckett's masterpiece was going to be performed by Nathan Lane, Bill Irwin, John Goodman and John Glover under the direction of Anthony Page, I practically had to be restrained from laying siege to the box office, so eager was I to get a ticket... But in the first 10 minutes, ennui set in. Then disappointment, then annoyance and finally anger. By the time the first act curtain fell, I was seething over the fact that five such theatre artists were making the dullest of hashes out of Beckett's sublime play. Granted, things picked up a bit in the first half of the second act, but the play's conclusion, which usually leaves me weak with its pitiless pathos, had me thinking instead about where I was going for dinner. What happened? It's hard to say. There's an old Yiddish proverb that says, "A fish stinks from the head," so one is inclined to look toward director Page, despite his impressive track record. Faced with four talented artists in four different styles, it appears by the evidence that he simply let them go their separate ways.

Variety A+ 14; WSJ A+ 14; Backstage A+ 14; Newsday A+ 14; USA Today A+ 14; The Hollywood Reporter A+ 14; TONY A+ 14; DC Theatre Scene A+ 14; Bergen Record A 13; AP A 13; The Daily News A 13; AMNY A 13; Lighting & Sound America A 13; American Theater Web A- 12; The New York Times A- 12; The New Yorker B+ 11; New York Post B+ 11; Bloomberg News B+ 11; EW B+ 11; The Village Voice B+ 11; NYMag B- 9; The Observer D 4; Talkin' Broadway D 4; Theatermania D- 3; F+ 2; The Toronto Star F 1; TOTAL: 279/26 = 10.73 (B+)

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