“Waiting for Godot” (directed by Anthony Page), Samuel Beckett’s masterpiece of existential angst, opened at Studio 54 on Broadway this spring with a sparkling cast and towering set. The script, about two men waiting on a dreary road for someone named Godot to come along, is deliberately spare, allowing for multiple layers of interpretation. We don’t know who Godot is or why they are waiting for him. Many viewers have suggested that Codot represents God (the name certainly contributes to that theory). Others say it is simply about the existential futility of life. Once, when asked about the Godot-God connection, Beckett slyly responded that “Codot” sounds like a French word for “shoe”; and shoes, as well as word plays, figure prominently in the play.
I think the play’s maddening ambiguity is its greatest strength, engaging its audiences intellectually, emotionally, and even spiritually. When some colleagues of mine at the University of Florida took a touring production of “Codot” to the state correctional facility, they worried that the inmates might be bored by the lack of action in the play. Instead, these men were enthralled. Accustomed to a lifetime of tedium and waiting for parole, they completely empathized with characters who wait for a signifying moment that never comes. They know what it means to have “Nothing to do,” as one of the characters says repeatedly.
Often “Godot” is set on a nearly empty stage to emphasize the bleakness of the play’s atmosphere, but this current production is dominated by set designer Santo Loquasto’s magnificent mountain of gray-white rocks on which the characters climb and tumble as they strut their hour on the stage. Estragon (Nathan Lane) and Vladimir (Bill Irwin), the two men who wait for Codot, are similarly covered in white dust, perhaps suggesting that they are in purgatory – dead, but unaware of their deaths. In the center of this rock garden is a large, barren tree – another dark biblical allusion perhaps – that tempts them with thoughts of suicide.
Gogo and Didi, as they call each other, are friends, but they bicker like an old married couple as they argue about whether to continue waiting for the mysterious Godot or move on. Lane and Irwin, known for their onstage buffoonery, bring a more somber comedy to these roles, reminiscent of Emmett Kelley’s sad-sack clowns. They wrestle with Gogo’s boots, doff each other’s hats, engage in wordplay, and sing silly songs as they wait and wait, but the resulting pathos is divine comedy, not the usual slick shtick.
Midway through the first act, Pozzo (John Goodman) arrives, driving an overburdened slave with the unlikely moniker “Lucky” (John Glover) in front of him. This Pozzo bursts onto the stage alive with color and pomposity. His massive, gluttonous stature is a perfect contrast to the bleakness of the rest of the scene. He struts, he orates, he even plays the beached walrus to hilarious applause at one point in the second act. If Godot is God, then Pozzo must be the jolly Satan, luxuriating in physical pleasures at the expense of his ensnared lackey, Lucky. The men don’t quite know what to make of this unlikely visitor, and neither do we. But we’re glad that he has arrived, and even gladder when he returns in the second act.
Tourists who attend this play expecting a riotous romp equal to Nathan Lane’s Tony-winning turn in “The Producers” will walk away wondering what all the hype is about. But thoughtful audiences that enjoy having something meaty to ponder and discuss, long after the curtain falls, will be thrilled by this brilliant production of one of the 20th century’s most praised plays.