by J.D. Oxblood
It’s so rare that I make it to a Broadway show—what with most of the Great White Way awash in Disney-fied claptrap, reincarnations of old musicals and old movies reincarnated as new musicals—that we decided to make a night of it. So much so that I actually went out and purchased an umbrella to keep my suit from getting soaked in the dismal, rainy April night. I was excited, yet anxious, because the last time I tried to get my fill of some good, old-fashioned absurdist drama, I was cringingly disappointed: to anyone else who shelled out the big bucks to sit through last years revival of (Harold Pinter’s exquisite test) “The Homecoming,” my condolences. Reeked so bad it took a month to get the smell out of my tux.
The Roundabout Theatre Company’s revival of Samuel Beckett’s anti-classic, at Studio 54, features Bill Irwin and Nathan Lane as Didi and Gogo, with none other than John Goodman as Pozzo and the spellbinding John Glover as Lucky, under the direction of Anthony Page. (FYI: everyone in the previous sentence has won a Tony, with the exception of Goodman, who’s won a Golden Globe.)
The gang of us ducked into the theatre and had time for a quick shot of bourbon at the bar before scrambling up to the balcony to our seats. I’ll say this—amen to a theatre for only charging $10 for a damn-sizable shot of Wild Turkey. Would that I had had the wherewithal to puke that Wild Turkey all over the oblivious bitch sitting next to us, who managed to worry her nylon jacket throughout the first act. Swish swish swish swish swish. Ah, like school on Sunday—no class. You can’t buy manners, folks, and it would seem that the TV-centric public no longer has any idea how to behave in a theatre. And hence ends my bitching.
Because the show was fucking fantastic. The curtain came up on Santo Loquasto’s mesmerizing set, so detailed and majestic that it was easy to forget he’d done little but read the stage directions. The makeshift road cut from up left to down right for maximum length, with a tree up right and a rock down left. Simple, elegant—and yet both sides of the road grew into mammoth boulders, cliffs rising up almost to the grid, yet without cluttering the wasteland. There was so much of the set that you could almost be fooled into forgetting that it was basically nothing.
This was the first preview, so it was no surprise that the audience gave a welcoming applause as Didi and Gogo entered. For those of you who may not be familiar with Bill Irwin, get familiar. He has a clowning resume as long as the night, and has in recent years appeared in increasingly more films and TV—you may have seen him in “Rachel Getting Married,” or, if you have kids, as “Mr. Noodle” on Sesame Street. But his performance in this show was impeccable; he manages to do nothing with such specificity that even attempting to do nothing at all becomes an exercise in exact physical prowess. As for Mr. Lane, his wheedling Gogo plays off Irwin’s Didi so smoothly and perfectly the two of them will inevitably draw comparisons to classic comedic pairings—Abbott and Costello, Laurel and Hardy. From the first action—and there’s precious little action in this script—of Gogo struggling with his boot, as the milder, more forgiving Didi tries to help him—the audience is on a ride into the abyss where the dramatization of the existential question meets the absurdity of existence—with comic timing.
Because, let’s face it, more people are familiar with “Godot” for its position in the modern canon than for its substance. This play, more than, arguably, anything since Shakespeare, has been deconstructed ad infinitum by every Dom, Prick and Hairy in every academic institution on the planet. If you ever read the play, chances are you were forced to. And then asked to delve into the Freudian symbolism, the Biblical allusions, the linguistic connotations—is Godot a stand-in for God? Who gives a crap? Because there’s one thing you’re bound to have missed if you read the script in English class in the tenth grade—“Waiting for Godot” is HILARIOUS. If done right.
And yikes, do these professionals do it right. The opening biblical musings are tossed out with so little fanfare that they’re quickly forgotten—it’s far more interesting to focus on Didi’s frantic runs into the wings to pee. The first act has a definite arc, and it begins to rise as Pozzo and Lucky make their first entrance. The audience hears Goodman’s booming voice long before we see him, and if seeing Goodman on stage in person is anything at all, it’s a testament to what an enormous man he really is. We forget, we think movies are all a trick, but no—standing next to two normal-sized men he’s a monstrosity, a giant; physically large with a voice and a personality to match. Goodman is expertly cast in this role, as Pozzo appears obese on his own importance. His abuse of Lucky seems de rigueur, beneath notice. Once we see Didi and Gogo interact with someone other than each other, their own personalities seem to come into a sharper focus.
If I were going to carp—and I think I will—Goodman lacked a little specificity in his prop handling. Between the watch and the whip and the pipe, he seemed to fumble, and while it might have been a set up to say, “What did I do with–“ I wasn’t feeling it. The more specific the better, and not being able to find your pipe will have more resonance when it isn’t so obvious that you didn’t know where to put it in the first place. First preview—let’s give them some time to work out the bugs. It’s a pittering note to an otherwise stupendous performance.
In the famous “think” sequence, I could hardly breathe. Glover has taken what may very well be the most difficult monologue ever written in any language and managed to imbue at least half of it with the appearance of meaning—which, of course, it doesn’t have. But the feat is commendable for its own seduction… we think he’s saying something in his logorrhea even though it makes no sense, and by the time Didi and Gogo begin to tackle him to try to get him to shut up, we’re torn—what if he starts to make sense again? Do we really want him to stop? I should add that Glover’s appearance is nothing shy of cadaverous. His stance down right, bags in hand, is the very picture of exhaustion to the point of total annihilation.
I didn’t love the lighting. Ok, no lighting cues, I get it—but it would be nice if that tree would cast a shadow. Towards the end of the act we got the only cue—the transition to night, which was done heavy-handedly with a disc of light literally rising behind the boulderscape as the stage darkened: the rising moon. Clever, well-done, but not for me.
Cue another cocktail. Cue the morons, the busy-bees, the ones with better places to be, the ones obligated to attend, the blue-hairs, and the assholes, jumping into cabs. Cue me and my entourage grabbing fan-fuckingtastic, ideal spectator, motherfucking Cardinal Richelieu seats in the dead center of the house at the front of the mezzanine.
Poor bastards. Perhaps it was opening night jitters, perhaps it was just the arc of the play, and, perhaps, it was the knowledge that everyone in that theatre was, now, truly along for the ride—the second act soared, and flew by in seemingly minutes. The funnier act by far, now we were really in for some low-brow entertainment by a gang of masters of physicality. Irwin began with a little doggerel, and we almost ached to be spared Gogo’s impending entrance—Didi seemed so much happier without him. But once the two joined forces and decided to have a good time, it was all over. We were treated to a classic hat-juggling routine as the two swapped three hats between them, from head to head. Their argumentative insult fight brought the house down when Gogo finally unleashed that most unmentionable of unmentionables, “Critic!” Mr. Lane managed to imbue a single gesture with all the comedic infallacy we saw at his command in the entirety of “The Birdhouse” as he tried on his boot, stuck out a foot, tossed out his hands, and vogued for a fraction of a second. And I think I actually peed myself a little when they pulled a classic Harpo Marx—one man handing the other his leg and the other taking it. Irwin earned his entire month’s salary in a single gesture of imitating Lucky—so convincing, so spare and elucidating, that I craved to see Lucky again.
The second act of “Godot” achieves what few comedies—in any medium—can, which is to make your sides ache from laughing, let you catch your breath just long enough to hit you in the back of the head with the apparent meaninglessness and desperation of life itself—and then get you laughing afresh. This combination of the lowbrow and the highbrow, the intellectual and the visceral, the cathartic and the stalemate, is so rarely found in perfect proportions that one would have to look outside of art to find its equivalent. Like, say, at life itself.
I won’t give anything else away. This is one of the best shows to hit Broadway in a lifetime, and you shouldn’t fucking miss it. Being overly rambunctious a character myself, I’ll admit that I was actually hoping for a mistake—first preview and all—and a chance to watch the performers recover from a flub. But no such luck. A few pops from a body mike while the performers were scrambling on the ground was as good as it got. I only hope I can manage to land tickets to go again towards the end of the run, just to see where else this expert cast manages to ride this nightmare.
(no kisses yet—read on to see the rest of my evening.)