Aside from its title, there’s no more perfect summation of “Waiting for Godot” than Estragon’s complaint “Nothing happens, nobody comes, nobody goes, it’s awful.” But there’s no trace of that monotony in the perversely gripping non-drama and fine-grained emotional textures of this haunting revival. Samuel Beckett’s 1953 play has been absent from Broadway for more than 50 years, and the current climate of pervasive anxiety makes the timing ideal for a comedy of existential despair — even better when it comes wrapped in Anthony Page’s transcendent production, showcasing four distinctive actors at the top of their game.
In terms of its theatrical innovation and its thematic depth, Beckett was onto something profound with this elliptical tragicomedy. There’s no more influential work in 20th century theater, and no play forges a more intensely personal connection with its audience, provoking individualized responses and piercing associations in any spectator willing to give full focus to the absurdist classic.
Seeing “Godot” at age 20 or 30 is an entirely different experience from seeing it at 40 or 50. No matter the achievements of any given life, the disappointments and losses stack up in equal or greater measure, and the onerous routines grow more punishing with every passing year. In a staging as beautiful as Page’s, those thoughts play in your head like sweet, sad music.
The lead musicians are Vladimir (Bill Irwin) and Estragon (Nathan Lane), the dusty, bowler-hatted tramps who convene each day by a sickly tree to kill time while waiting for the arrival of the ever-elusive, possibly divine Godot and, more obliquely, for a reason to go on living. Departing mildly from Beckettian tradition, the specified “country road” is interpreted here by designer Santo Loquasto as a forbidding mountain pass, adding another layer of desolation to the repeat-mode limbo in which Didi and Gogo spend their days.
Brilliantly teamed in their Laurel-and-Hardy physical characteristics as well as their contrasting temperaments — Lane a jovially sour kvetch with a hunched-over shuffle; Irwin a twitching, meditative clown with a jaunty, Chaplinesque gait — the two actors commingle, collide and bounce off each other like a seasoned vaudeville duo. Yet even their shtickiest comic business or most flabbergasted double takes never disguise the bone-deep anxiety of two men unable to live with or without each other. Theirs is companionship reduced to the most elemental of human needs. Both suspect they would be better off alone, yet both gravitate each day toward a bittersweet reunion.
As they bicker and reconcile, moan about their aches and ailments, eat, try to sleep, invent games, consider suicide and engage in a perpetual struggle to connect the events of one day to the next, the hopeless insignificance of their existence — and Man’s — sneaks up and punches you in the gut.
Didi and Gogo find distraction but no comfort in the passing of a no-less-symbiotic pair, the imperious Pozzo (John Goodman) and his hollow-eyed, hobbling slave of 60 years, Lucky (John Glover), scared to put down his baggage for fear of losing his job. (Every office has one these days.)
Affecting the plummiest of British accents, Goodman enters like a canal barge, his considerable girth rendered gigantic in a dandified jacket-and-jodhpurs combo that’s the most hilarious of Jane Greenwood’s superb costumes. Pozzo clings to the rituals of a rarefied society that’s clearly extinct; his mistreatment of Lucky doesn’t hide their interdependence, and his hauteur can’t conceal that master and servant are equally miserable.
Glover is astonishing. Almost unrecognizable, he staggers and drools, snickering quietly at Pozzo’s blather and fiercely guarding his last shreds of dignity. At one point, Lucky is ordered to dance and think for the master’s acquaintances, cranking up into his seemingly nonsensical Joycean rant with such force he gets a nosebleed, while Didi and Gogo bob about trying to shut him down. The scene vies only with Goodman’s beached-walrus routine as the production’s comic high point.
Doing his best stage work in years, Lane expertly threads anguish, fear and crushing exhaustion into Gogo’s sense of mischief; he’s perhaps spared from abject horror by the glitch in his short-term memory, but he’s cognizant enough to know there’s no relief in sight, and it’s heartbreaking. There are no extraneous touches in Lane’s disciplined performance, which conveys as much careful reflection as impeccable technique, managing to play a single note as both funny and sorrowful.
Irwin acts with his entire body, every grimace and nervous flicker of his eyes suggesting some terrible knowledge Didi is fighting to keep hidden from his friend. The failure to recognize the actor’s subtle work in “Rachel Getting Married” during last year’s film honors was a glaring oversight. His performance here reveals even finer nuances without the aid of closeups, whether he’s gasping in shock while pinned under Goodman’s formidable bulk or trembling with joy at the handful of leaves that have sprouted overnight on the tree, suggesting that life may go on after all.
Didi’s superior recall of the previous day’s events and those of the one before makes him the most poignant of these four figures wandering in the wilderness. Irwin’s delivery of the plaintive near-final speech in which he contemplates the agonizing crawl toward the grave is deeply moving. “Tell him you saw me and that … that you saw me,” he urges Godot’s envoy (Cameron Clifford). Didi’s terror is overwhelming, but he continues to crave that simple validation to assure himself he’s still alive.