Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Review: "Waiting for Godot"

Having a small child running around makes it tough to blog and even tougher to get to the theater. Fortunately, the baby-sitting Gods smiled down on the wife and I last week and we finally got to see Samuel Becket's classic "Waiting for Godot" on Broadway.

It stars Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen, those two Knight Commanders of the British Empire better known as the mutant overlords Charles Xavier and Magneto from the "X-Men" movies. In "Godot", they play Vladimir and Estragon, two "tramps" in worn-out clothes who reek of old shoes and garlic, as they wait eternally by a tree for Mr. Godot. While they wait, they are distracted by a riotous man named Pozzo (played awesomely by Shuler Helmsley) who is lugging along his slave Lucky (the great actor Billy Crudup, paying his dues for dumping his pregnant ex-girlfriend) who he plans to sell off at a fair. Contre temps ensue. Vladimir and Estragon try to stop Pozzo from his mistreatment of Lucky, to no avail. At one point, Lucky gives a long, fast, totally incomprehensible speech about nothing at all. Finally, they leave. Vladimir and Estragon go on to sing, dance, and, on occasion, speculate about hanging themselves from the tree. At a couple of points, as night falls, a young boy shows up to say that Mr. Godot will not be coming today but will tomorrow. Vladimir and Estragon need only continue to wait. Then Estragon drops his pants.

Let's get the easy stuff out of the way: this production is excellent. Natch. Watching Stewart and McKellen is to see two master actors at the top of their game. They throw themselves completely into these ridiculous characters, their feeling and depth of character is intense, and they bounce around the stage like two kids in a playpen, so pure is their love of the play and each other. You wouldn't think you were watching two veteran actors in their seventies who do this eight times a week. The real revelation, for me, was Shuler Helmsley, playing the revolting Pozzo. He absolutely commands the stage, stealing almost every moment from Stewart and McKellen -- and that's no easy task! As for Crudup, his performance is one of the most thankless, physically difficult ones that I've ever seen and, no shock at all, he pulls it perfectly. This production of "Waiting for Godot" is Broadway theater at its very best.

Now the not-so-easy stuff. Becket's "Waiting for Godot" is a very silly play about life's most serious subject. In Becket's view, life is just one long wait for death. In order not to get bored by the wait, to get distracted, human beings mistreat each other and fill out their lives with nonsense. Existence results in debasement. And we convince ourselves that we're not waiting for death but, instead, waiting for ... well, you can't spell "Godot" without G-O-D. We're always promised that God will come, that He will "save" us but ... not quite yet. As for the world itself, like the tree, ultimately it exists as nothing but an instrument for suicide. Life is death. The world is our murderer.  

Obviously, Becket's view of life in the world is a little bleak. Some might even say nihilistic. It's less a play and more a meditation. Even though it didn't premier until 1953, Becket wrote "Waiting for Godot" in 1949, a few short years after WWII, when humanity nearly destroyed itself, so his cynical view is understandable if a little outdated. But it's still relevant, and the religious, philosophical, existentialist, and humanitarian themes of the play have been and will be debated for decades. It invites controversy. It asks tough questions and provides no easy answers. That makes it great art.

And if you want to have a great time on Broadway, seeing this production is one of the best of life's distractions of all.

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