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Lane-Irwin balance laughs and despair in 'Godot'

By MICHAEL KUCHWARA/AP Drama Critic
April 30, 2009 at 5 p.m.
Updated April 29, 2009 at 11:30 p.m.


NEW YORK (AP) — 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.

In "Godot," we're trapped in a world of desolation, a bleak, boulder-strewn country road (designed by Santo Loquasto) that's distinguished only by a solitary tree. Two tramps, Estragon and Vladimir, are awaiting the arrival of the mysterious title character. But will he ever show up?

What Beckett devised in "Godot" are two acts of artful anticipation, a play filled with vaudevillian high jinks that mask increasingly agitated desperation. Existence goes on and on and on without any satisfying conclusion. Hmmm, sort of like real life?

Lane's Estragon is the more combative of the two men, who are done up in bowler hats and ragged outfits that suggest a Laurel and Hardy in serious foreclosure distress. In a role played in the original 1956 Broadway production by the legendary Bert Lahr, Lane frets and fusses with an exasperation that naturally produces laughs, particularly in the second act.

Irwin's Vladimir is contemplative, more sweet-tempered but equally comic in his attempts to pass the time in this uninviting limbo. He's also an adept physical clown, able to scamper across Loquasto's this mournful landscape with ease.

Despite their arguments, Estragon and Vladimir are buddies. Their relationship, while argumentative, is fraternal, unlike the other pair of men who occupy much of Beckett's strangely lunar landscape.

Master and servant are played out by John Goodman as the lordly Pozzo and John Glover as his ever-obedient Lucky, surely the most perversely named character in the Beckett canon. Both are superb: Goodman, often roaring his lines with hurricane force; Glover, silent except for a long gibberish speech near the end of Act 1.

The two men are physically opposite, too. Goodman looks as if he is a late 19th century robber baron. His wonderful outfit is by the veteran costumedesigner Jane Greenwood. The actor's Pozzo is a man of many appetites, all of them large.

Glover, on the other hand, is cadaverous in appearance, a shock of stringy white hair framing a haunted pair of eyes and with just a wisp of drool hanging off his chin. Quite chilling.

Anthony Page directed Irwin in the clear-headed 2005 revival of "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" Page's work here is equally crisp.

There is one more character in "Godot," a boy, alternately played at Studio 54 by Cameron Clifford and Matthew Schechter. He appears at the ends of the play's first and second acts. This young messenger apparently has seen Godot, a fact that fills Vladimir with wonder and dread.

Yet even then, he and Estragon can't leave their posts. Despite proclaiming, "let's go," the men dither about giving up the wait. You'll find their indecision most haunting.

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