The quaint quasi-respectable genre known as Theater of the Absurd stayed around for much of the 1960s, but actually peaked with Samuel Beckett’s 1955 serio-comical “Waiting for Godot.” This is a play, a masterpiece in the genre, that doesn’t need one more critic voicing his opinion as to what the devil is really going on. When what is going on, however, is addressed by the brilliantly talented Nathan Lane and Bill Irwin, all that existential stuff becomes more than merely accessible; it transcends into something glorious.
Let’s not ponder any more about who or what Godot really is. Just consider the facts that this play succeeds exactly because it appears to have no plot, no point, no purpose, and no discernable progression of activity. That this Roundabout Theater production, under the magnificent direction Anthony Page, contains an extraordinary amount of funny shtick is nothing to get snooty about.
Knowing this also may suggest to you what lengths Lane, as Estragon, and Irwin, as Vladimir, go to to insure that there is more meaning than meandering to be gleaned from the precisely delivered text. Be assured that whatever misgivings you may harbor regarding any play by Beckett, this is the one that will earn your praise and likely change your mind. Purists need not worry that the enigmas of the play have been made any clearer here than they ever were, or that the riveting text is appraised in a new light. I suspect that there are comical elements in this enlightened perspective of the play that will keep the devoted as happy as much as it will tickle the newly acquainted.
Given the restrictions and demands imposed upon its interpreters by the guardians of Beckett-land, the sublime staging by Page of this pillar of post-modern drama is given a real visual shot with that obligatory barren tree now ensconced within an imposing grey mountain pass, the work of set designer Santo Loquasto. Page may keep the artfully paired Lane and Irwin conscious and faithful of the rhymes that propel the text, but what the actors do with the terse dialogue is simply a wonder of theatrical timing and delivery.
If the plot is famed for its reductionism, the simple contrivances that Lane and Irwin find themselves addressing suddenly seem to be thriving as they never have before. A formidable work, “Waiting for Godot” requires as much a fearless approach as it does a reverential one. You will not soon forget the pathetic image of these two dusty, shabbily-dressed men with their bruised faces under bowler hats and disintegrating shoes on their painful dirty feet, as they bicker and bait each other, searching for clues that might make them seem as if they had a direction or motivation (ill-advised adornments in any absurdist work.)
What is most striking about the interplay between Lane and Irwin (a somewhat more pathetically twisted imaging of Laurel and Hardy) is how brilliantly these two impatient tramps breech the territory between the play’s humor and its utter poignancy. But how then is it possible for them to keep us laughing through their protracted discourse that goes nowhere in particular? Oh, did I forget? These two eternally bonded men are waiting for the elusive Mr. Godot.
Except for the intrusion into their bleak existence by a despotic master and his obedient slave, Estragon and Vladimir may or may not be aware at any point that their mutually entwined karmas are leading them all to the same place. Lane and Irwin have figured out how to jiggle the balance of power like a long-standing partnership between two vintage vaudevillians. Lane, whose inimitable talent has reached legendary status (“The Producers,” “Guys and Dolls,” “The Man Who Came to Dinner”) reaches deep into Estragon’s despairing sense of resolve. His soulful display of paranoia will surely break your heart.
Irwin, whose mastery at mime (“Fool Moon” and “Largely New York”) rivals his award-winning speaking role (“Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”) has his work cut out for him keeping his malleable body in consort with his deftly spoken words. All this is visible despite seeing Vladimir racked with discomfort from malfunctioning kidneys. Ultimately their concerted contentiousness becomes endearing even as their affection for each inevitably becomes incredibly sad.
Waiting and waiting and waiting, both Go Go and Di Di (as they are familiarly known to each other) are characters we are concerned about and really care about, a situation all too rare in much contemporary dramatic literature. The play gets a punch with the intrusion of the whip-snapping master Pozzo, as portrayed by John Goodman. At the performance I saw, Goodman was still getting a handle on Pozzo, and seemed less a terrorizing autocrat than a pompous fool, and his self-betrayal was conspicuously unmoving. A gaunt-looking John Glover chokes, wheezes, and shakes and makes a loquacious case for his pathetic gobbledygook plight as the abused, humiliated, and luckless Lucky.
I suspect that some will still say that this is not the definitive production. But until that one comes along, this one is not to be missed. “Waiting for Godot” was first presented as “En Attendant Godot” at the Theatre de Babylone, in Paris, France, during the season of 1952-’53. It had its Broadway premiere at the John Golden Theater on April 19, 1956, and played through June 9 for a total of 59 performances. ****
“Waiting for Godot,” through Sunday, July 12, Roundabout Theater Company at Studio 54, 254 West 54th Street. $36.50 to $116.50. 212-719-1300.