For this smart, lockdown-era, streaming iteration of Samuel Beckett’s show about nothing — and also everything, perhaps, and electric alienation for sure — director Scott Elliott and his tramps Ethan Hawke, John Leguizamo, Tarik Trotter and Wallace Shawn play the absurd theater classic “Waiting for Godot” as a low-lit, (mostly) subtle series of daft conversations that touch on everything from carrots and turnips to slavery, man’s inability to see, God’s unwillingness to show up, smelly feet and smellier breath. That Beckett’s holy/unholy chatter resembles the idiomatic colloquial-ness and cheer of longtime acquaintances (rather than the staid staginess we’ve seen in previous versions) helps the cast give off the vibe of lost Gen X-ers, now in their 50s, walking briskly toward an ever-dimming future.
Mostly that minor-case freneticism comes from Hawke playing Vladimir as a junior league, dude-abiding Lebowski – one more caffeinated than White Russian-soaked — and Leguizamo playing Estragon as a quirkily humorous bug with tender but twitching eyes, and just a hint of the dancer about him. When Estragon speaks of a life of compartments with no lack of a void, Leguizamo all but reaches out to mime the invisible wall — but masterfully pulls back, and doesn’t make the void so readily attainable.
Bathed in amber, taking place in Zoom squares (with title screen announcements, no less) filled with work-a-day tchotchkes, Hawke’s Vladimir and Leguizamo’s Estragon (or the more familiar ‘Go Go’ to Vladimir) play off the easy naturalism of the absurd (and their laptop cameras) with little scenery chewing. Sure, Hawke toys with literal monkey business when Beckett’s still-crisp script calls for it, and you can hear his every swallow and pucker as he slurps the soup of Beckett’s elastic language. As for Leguizamo, he picks his toenails and flails his arms like he’s voguing when he’s not offering oddly accented variations of the word ‘Adieu,’ or making himself crankily discontent at every turn.
Yet their movements are fluid, gently intrinsic extensions of each man’s personality (as well as their characters’ ever-present psychic quarantine), rather than mawkish improvisational studies. When Leguizamo and Hawke trade chapeaux, scratch their imaginary bowlers and make Stan Laurel faces, it’s as if we’re transferred to a silent film comedy.
By keeping Beckett’s characters in (in)convenient squares, and occasionally pandemic-masked, director Elliott quietly explodes the deepest roots of Vladimir and Estragon’s intertwining isolationism while heightening mankind’s distance from each other and its absolute universality. This becomes all the more apparent when Vlad and Go Go happen on to the erudite, enslaving Pozzo (portrayed with icy, rhythmic grace by Trotter of The Roots) and the enslaved, rubber-faced Lucky (Shawn).
There is a haughtiness to Trotter’s wide, toothy grin, and his record-scratching lyrical patter is irresistible. As soon as he enters the quartered Zoom stage, his stateliness fills all four squares. Trotter, still a fresh-to-the-stage thespian, more than holds his own with his veteran costars. His cool hamminess naturally enslaves and engulfs the braying, tic-like demeanor of the predominantly silent Lucky. When Shawn’s face creases and blubbers through a dozen different emotions, he recalls Bert Lahr (who appeared in the 1955 American debut of “Godot”), and when Lucky’s monologue unfurls, it is as an elegant musical suite of whimsy and woe.
At a little over three hours in length, Elliott’s laptop “Godot” stretches the limits of how long most audiences have been given to endure online theater. Most events top out at 90 minutes, even seeming to fudge or rush dialogue and movements. Fortunately, however, each actor on the “Godot” team makes the wait worthwhile, and the curiosity of the existential urge more palpable, more richly attainable. With that, the icy playwright’s looming tone and slow pace manages to become warm, even sprightly, with such a riveting cast moving and waiting at once.
Besides, if any of Godot’s characters grow weary or bored by Beckett’s dire, dry wit, the play’s length, or each other’s dippy exploits, they can simply turn off their laptop screens. So can the audience.