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Theatre in Review: Waiting for Godot (Druid/Gerald W. Lynch Theater, John Jay College)

Aaron Monaghan, Marty Rea. Photo: Richard Termine.

This revival, from the excellent Irish company Druid, has been dubbed the "comic" Godot -- a strange distinction for a play that premiered in the US with Bert Lahr and has, over the years, been performed by Steve Martin, Robin Williams, Christopher Lloyd, Tony Shalhoub, Bill Irwin, and Nathan Lane. In the recently concluded Irish Rep offering On Beckett, Irwin demonstrated conclusively the close alliance between his particular form of clowning and Samuel Beckett's bleak worldview. Indeed, the play that, in its Broadway tryout, was wildly mislabeled "the laugh sensation of two continents," has buried in its arid landscape a certain graveyard gaiety that continues to discomfit even as it attracts master humorists.

Nevertheless, it is true that Garry Hynes' production has an antic physicality that gives this Godot an artfully cartooned quality all its own. It's there in the sight of Aaron Monaghan's Estragon twisting himself into a pretzel as he tries to remove his boot -- to say nothing of his putting it back on, a gymnastic feat complete with somersault. You see it in the high-stepping routine -- just short of a cakewalk -- with which Marty Rea's Vladimir makes his way across the stage, and when Monaghan leans forward at a forty-five-degree angle, a feat that seems to defy the laws of nature. And it is on display in the stylized pose -- one leg extended behind, the other in a crouch, a hand placed above his brow -- with which Monaghan indicates that he is scanning the horizon. (At times, one feels that John Cleese's Minister of Silly Walks was engaged as a technical consultant.) Both men execute the play's most overt nod to vaudeville -- a bit of comic business in which three hats are frantically passed between them -- with the skill of a Bill Irwin.

The characters are, in Thomas Gray's famous lines, "laughing wild amid severest woe:" They stare into the vastness of the universe, and, detecting its indifference, shrug their shoulders. There is authentic, if dark, laughter when Rea pronounces, unctuously, "One of the thieves was saved," and, turning the idea over in his head, adds, "It's a reasonable percentage." Or when Monaghan, contemplating the Dead Sea, decides it's the perfect place for a honeymoon. ("You should have been a poet," Rea says, moved by this lyrical idea. "I am," replies Monaghan, displaying the tattered rags on his back. "Isn't that obvious?") The series of "adieus" he and Monaghan offer each other, in tones ranging up and down the scale, each set at a distinct emotional temperature, is a little tour de force all by itself.

Indeed, in this Godot, the news is so awful that there's nothing left to do but laugh. Is the world a desert, denuded of any sign of life? Is intellect useless and memory a trap? ("In my opinion we were here," Monaghan says, nervously eyeing the little patch of dirt they occupy. Rea asks, "You recognize the place?" "I didn't say that," Monaghan snaps back.) And are Vladimir and Estragon, seemingly trapped in a loop, doomed to repeat themselves over and over, waiting for a mysterious character whose significance, if any, they fail to grasp? Well, there is always another pose to strike, a little routine to execute, in the long, empty hours between sunrise and sunset.

Monaghan and Rea are given fine support by Rory Nolan as Pozzo, a cheerfully entitled taskmaster with a pear-shaped frame, aristocratic pretensions, and a whip that he wields like a circus ringmaster; he is surprisingly affecting when, later on, he returns, having lost his sight, to deliver, in a voice ripe with anguish, an aria about the slow shutting-down of the human body. He partners expertly with Garrett Lombard as Lucky, Pozzo's beast of burden, with his lengthy golden locks, a neck bloody with rope burns, and a total vacuity of expression. He handles Lucky's big speech, a lava-like outpouring of intellectual nonsense, with considerable élan.

The one weakness of this approach is that -- during the first half, especially -- the actors seem to leap from one comic conceit to another with such skill that some of the play's darker, deeper notes are obscured. But, in the later passages, a genuine and profound sense of loss emerges, as when Vladimir savagely orders Estragon to stop whining; when Vladimir shouts "I can't go on!" and then covers his mouth, looking terrified that some unseen deity might have heard him; and when the two men, having survived another day, stare into the distance, wondering what, if anything, comes next.

Because of the exacting expectations of the Beckett estate, one production of Godot usually resembles another, but the set designer, Francis O'Connor, brings fresh ideas, setting the action against what looks like a wall of marble; a bare tree that eventually acquires three leaves, each honed to a sword's point; and a moon that is a transparent globe riding in on a winch. (O'Connor's costumes are appropriately scrofulous.) James F. Ingalls' lighting moves slowly, but relentlessly, from a bleak daytime wash to icy night; the set's perimeter is also a light box that encases the company in cold white illumination. Gregory Clarke's sound design sends a stark wind blowing through the set.

For all its comic invention, Hynes' approach may not be to all tastes, especially those who like their Beckett heavy with portent. But if, like me, you recognize Beckett's essential place in the dramatic canon while quarreling -- for reasons of temperament, philosophy, or religious belief -- with his vision, this may be the Godot for you. In any case, it's a fine chance to meet some excellent actors and to contemplate the very real synchronicity between Beckett's austere viewpoint and the black humor at which the Irish excel. -- David Barbour


(7 November 2018)

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