A wacky all-star online Zoom version of the play brings some laughs, but loses Beckett’s dark poetry
Once described as a play “in which nothing happens, twice” Waiting for Godot seems especially relevant now that we’re all emerging from the quarantine haze and back into something resembling everyday life. But the existential tedium of modern life hasn’t gone anywhere. If you’ve ever sat through some website’s endless buffering or waited for hours for customer service to take your call, sat in the DMV all day, or ordered something online only to never have it arrive, then you know what I mean. There’s a high probability that nothing is still going to keep happening over and over again.
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A new production of the play, available online from The New Group for a three-day rental fee of less than $10 until the end of the month, takes Samuel Beckett’s vision of the absurd into some zany territory, with mixed results. Ethan Hawke and John Leguizamo play Valdimir and Estragon while Black Thought from The Roots, also known as Tariq Trotter, and the great Wallace Shawn play the minor roles of the pompous Pozzo and his servant Lucky. Their adaptation packs some wacky fun over its three hour length, but they lose Beckett’s dark poetry in the antics.
Since the play consists almost entirely of dialogue, an online production is natural. The story plays out in a kind of a weirdly three-dimensional conference call. The characters speak to each other as if they are in separate basements having a Zoom meeting, with their names popping up to cue their different entrances and exits. They occasionally tap their screens whenever they’re done gabbing. At times they hand each other objects that pass through the frame and sometimes seem to be in each other’s faces, which adds a surreal spatial dimension.
Hawke and Leguizamo are an interesting pair. Vladimir is more the brains of the operation, quoting and querying and seeming to have as much of a grip on the essentially absurd situation as possible. He’s more sensitive than earthy Estragon, who suffers from constant nightmares and whose stinky boots just won’t fit. The play indicates that the two have some kind of ill-defined history together. They bicker and reminisce like old friends and try to buck each other up while they wait around for whatever it is that’s supposed to happen.
They’re just trying to fill the time before Godot shows up, if he ever will, and the obscure nature of their waiting gradually makes them go a little bonkers. Beckett wants us to see his characters’ plight as comic, and Hawke and Leguizamo go for the gusto. They make childlike, goofy gestures, they hoot and stomp like monkeys, at one point they do a weird yoga pose, and generally ham it up. It’s amusing, but after a while you start to wonder if the characters are the ones who are getting squirrely with waiting or if the real life actors started to lose it from doing a three-hour play filled with nothing.
Trotter, playing Pozzo, is an interesting casting choice that doesn’t hit the mark. Beckett left Pozzo’s relationship to the main characters deliberately vague, but he’s definitely some sort of bourgeois nabob who might know Godot and who keeps the wretched Lucky at his beck and call. Making Pozzo Black subtly changes the way we interpret him, which is a novel idea, but Trotter’s line readings are too clipped. At times, he sounds like he’s reading off a series of telegrams, which is disappointingly clunky, especially for a verbally nimble MC.
Shawn’s Lucky looks totally frazzled and shell-shocked, which fits his character. He spends most of the play lurking in the background, looking terrified. But when he’s finally allowed to give his madcap monologue it doesn’t really land anywhere. It’s supposed to be pseudo-intellectual gibberish, but there’s a way for nonsense to sound like it’s groping towards some kind of meaning or concept rather than remaining a cloud of incomprehensible words.
And this is why The New Group’s adaptation ultimately misses the admittedly very tricky magic of the play. Beckett clearly enjoyed all the black humor built into the whole scenario, with two verbose schmucks determinedly standing in the middle of nowhere for little reason, and he gave his characters a lot of funky problems to sort out. Vladimir’s apparently got VD and the two of them enthusiastically debate on whether or not they should hang themselves in order to get erections. They’re a couple of bumbling goofs, holy fools whose pants fall down, and they energetically banter about carrots or leaves or whatever else might come to mind. Maybe they talk so much because they don’t really have any other option.
So it’s totally fair for the actors to dig into the crazy humor that’s baked into the play. One fine day whoever has the tapes will show us the full version that Steve Martin and Robin Williams did in the 90s. And Hawke and Leguizamo certainly seem to be having fun with the material. Yet this adaptation hits the funny bone instead of the heart. It doesn’t consistently find the searching, plaintive, emotional foundation of a story that, technically speaking, has no story. Beckett’s radical break from traditional dramatic structure can be absorbing and surprisingly moving when done right, but we need to feel something for these loquacious but doomed characters in order to keep it interesting. Otherwise, it disappears into the absurdity of the premise, and nothing doesn’t happen twice because we missed it the first time.