It must have seemed the exact right time to produce “Waiting for Godot,” the bleak, sardonic, enigmatic play about a pair of scruffy pals trying to stay connected and hopeful during a time of tedium, uncertainty and possible apocalypse. Samuel Beckett initially wrote what he would eventually call his “tragicomedy” after spending the war years in the Resistance in Nazi-occupied France, and at the onset of the age of anxiety over the threat of nuclear annihilation.
In the New Group production, Ethan Hawke and John Leguizamo play the hapless Vladimir and Estragon (nicknamed Didi and Gogo), sometimes in face masks, stuck inside their separate darkened and dilapidated rooms, communicating via a modified Zoom-like platform, while day after day they wait for a third character who (spoiler alert) never shows up.
Since Didi and Gogo are no longer traveling through a barren outdoor landscape as in earlier productions, but staying anchored in pandemic lock down, some of the lines from the (unchanged) script make even less sense than usual. What’s more important, arguably, is the match in moods between the script and the production; the designers and videographers work wonders in establishing the anxiety and the gloom.
Unfortunately, my mood apparently matches too. In theory, I was looking forward to seeing these talented performers in one of the most influential theater pieces of the twentieth century – a groundbreaking experimental work in which (as one Beckett scholar famously put it) “nothing happens, twice.” But it’s just a fact that I fell asleep viewing it, twice. (Luckily – or unluckily? – I could rewind.) This could just be me – a narcoleptic episode, or perhaps bodily rebellion against static viewing, rather than a critical judgment. I did consciously savor several scenes, and cannot find fault with the acting; there is palpable chemistry between the two leads that at peak moments pays off in some delightful back-and-forth. But this “Waiting for Godot” IS three hours of gloomy Zooming – the kind of length even Beckett himself increasingly eschewed for his abstruse work the older he got (The best-known after “Waiting for Godot” of Beckett’s 19 plays, “Happy Days” and “Endgame,” are both about two hours; “Krapp’s Last Tape” is under an hour; “Breath,” which he wrote in his sixties, is 35 seconds long.) The New Group production is largely deprived of the comic physicality that made previous versions I’ve seen of “Godot” come alive.
I actually criticized Patrick Stewart in the 2013 Broadway production of the play for going too far with the vaudeville stage business, making Didi seem less like a tramp awkwardly mimicking Chaplin than like Chaplin expertly playing the tramp.
I eat those words now, as I was pathetically grateful for the rare moments when Hawke and Leguizamo stood up, even though half cut off by the frame; even when their antics felt forced: After Gogo says “people are bloody ignorant apes” (which is in the script), both Hawke and Leguizamo rose into a simian crouch, hooting and grunting and grabbing their private parts (which is not in the script.) At other points, Hawke tried to juggle turnips and briefly played his guitar.
The deprivation of an actual stage surely helps explain why a highlight of this production for me came during the scenes with Didi and Gogo’s two visitors, Pozzo (Tarik Trotter) and his slave Lucky (Wallace Shawn), when Lucky, who has been meek and snivelly, gets a chance to dance. I frankly don’t even remember this scene in previous productions, but it’s memorably hilarious here, and it’s followed by Gogo’s imitation of Lucky dancing; anybody who has seen any of Leguizamo’s solo stage shows will understand why his dancing, even so briefly, felt like such a treat. (I was surprised that I also especially appreciated Lucky’s gobbledygook of a monologue, which struck me for the first time as a spot-on spoof of academic writing – or perhaps, of the academic mind.)
For all its little jokes and playful banter, “Waiting for Godot” has a haunting, harrowing, elusive and allusive quality that makes it feel almost sacred. Which may be why I was initially taken aback that the New Group has partnered with Broadway Wine Club “to offer one-of-a-kind wines to drink while you watch.” But maybe they understood more than I did about what it would take to make it all the way from the very first line, “Nothing to be done,” to the very last, “Yes, let’s go. (They do not move.)”
Waiting for Godot
by Samuel Beckett
Directed by Scott Elliott
Cast: Ethan Hawke (Vladimir), John Leguizamo (Estragon), Wallace Shawn (Lucky), Tarik Trotter (Pozzo) and Drake Bradshaw (Boy).
Running time: 183 minutes
$19.99 to access for 3 Days (72 Hours)
$24.99 to access for 7 Days
or $99 for an Off Stage Access Pass and watch on demand through its entire run
Director of Photography: Kramer Morganthau, ASC
Production Designer: Derek McLane
Editor: Yonatan Weinstein
Costume Designer: Qween Jean
Sound Designer: Justin Ellington
Production Manager: Lay Hoon Tan
Waiting for Godot will be available on-demand at thenewgroup.org through June 30.