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Ordinarily, when one is reviewing Waiting for Godot, the following names do not come up: Moe, Curly, Larry, the Marx Bros., the Wayans Bros., the Nicholas Bros., Warner Bros., Chaplin, Keaton (both Buster and Diane), Lloyd (Richardson), Jesse Jackson, Martin Luther King Jr., Bert and Ernie, or Bert Williams.
Bert Lahr, maybe. He played Estragon (Gogo) 42 years ago in the first U.S. production of Godot. I’m told he was a riot. I’d be willing to bet he wasn’t much funnier than Donald Griffin is at Studio Theatre. But then, Lahr was an ex-vaudevillian working his own schtick, and he reportedly never understood the part he was playing. Griffin and Thomas W. Jones II (who plays Vladimir [Didi] at Studio) are working the schtick of all the folks mentioned in the previous paragraph. And then some. And then lots, actually. And what is clear exhilaratingly, transparently clear in Joy Zinoman’s superb staging is that they understand every syllable of the parts they’re playing.
Which is a good thing, because they’re sure as hell not doing them the way they’re usually done.
Waiting for Godot is, as the title suggests, a play of incompletion. The story of two tramps waiting in a void for a man who will never come, it offers audiences desires ungratified, implications unfulfilled, satisfactions aborted. Samuel Beckett wrote it in the aftermath of a war that had called humankind’s very existence into question. In 1948, the verdict on humanity wasn’t in wouldn’t be, at least for the foreseeable future and that’s what he wrote about: the wait.
It is, admittedly, a wait the author has filled with incident a shoe taken off, a carrot devoured, satchels lifted, hats switched and with words, most of which are idle chatter, and all of which are cadenced like vaudeville routines. Casting Lahr on Broadway was a stroke of genius. The Cowardly Lion/Bawling Mountebank was the perfect audience-friendly bridge to such absurdist material. Lahr’s absurdism was of a style postwar patrons understood. Beckett’s absurdism, on the other hand, wasn’t just style; it was content, and that fact was profoundly disturbing to audiences who weren’t used to staring into the void and having nothingness stare back at them.
For patrons weaned on Seinfeld, however, a play about nothing is…well, child’s play. So that’s what we’re given at Studio: two Stooges routines, kids throwing dirt at each other in a sandbox, hat tricks cribbed from the Marx Bros., and goofy bits from those Saturday morning cartoons in which Bugs bugs Daffy daffy. Note that these are pastimes that are also about incompletion. Curly doesn’t stop being annoyed at Moe’s dictates; he just loses interest and moves on. Kids don’t stop throwing dirt because somebody wins the battle: They stop because something else occurs to them. We’ve learned that there’s always another diversion coming up, another rerun after the commercial, another channel to surf.
So Gogo and Didi are amusing themselves as they wait for something important to happen in much the way Studio’s patrons amuse themselves when not at the theater. They’re hungry for meaning, sure. But they’re used to filling time when meaning is not forthcoming.
As representative figures, however, these two tramps are far more specific than most Gogos and Didis. For one thing, Griffin and Jones are African-American actors wearing a ghostly touch of white makeup around their lips a sort of faded, postmodern hint of traditional blackface. Many of the routines they use to pass the time are homages to the buck ‘n’ wing brand of vaudeville that was a staple on the Chitlin Circuit. And the void they’re lost in is a specifically rural, American, Southern void.
Beckett specifies in his stage directions that the play is taking place in a theater, on a road by a tree and a mound, and Zinoman has taken the first of those locales in a more or less literal manner. Where most directors take “a theater” to mean the auditorium the actors are sharing with the audience, she’s had designer Russell Metheny consider what sort of theater might exist on a road near a tree and a mound.
What he’s conjured up is a long-abandoned drive-in. Its soiled, dilapidated movie screen tilts alarmingly toward the stage’s back wall, the speaker posts have rusted, and one scraggly willow has managed to poke through the macadam next to a pile of dirt and twigs. Purists may object, but for most patrons, this locale should certainly suggest Nowheresville persuasively enough. In contemporary life, voids needn’t always be empty.
In this context, the arrival in each act of the pompous capitalist master, Pozzo, and his slave, Lucky (played by white actors Michael Tolaydo and Hugh Nees), qualify as quasi-Brechtian interludes, rather than mere incidents in an afternoon of waiting. These two bring with them a difference in playing style Tolaydo is all Brit archness and plummy sophistication, while Nees is man reduced by hideous circumstances to a state that’s scarcely human. Neither of them is doing anything approaching vaudeville, because the director is using them to comment on the theatrical forms she’s been playing with all evening.
When Gogo and Didi must dance, Jones and Griffin turn into the Nicholas Bros. When Lucky must dance, Nees goes spastic. And when called upon to deliver an impossibly long rant that devolves into nonsense, he renders it with an internal clarity that’s downright scary. No one who saw him deliver the astonishing 15-minute rhymed-couplet monologue in David Hirson’s La Bete five years ago at Source Theatre will be surprised that he can carry off Lucky’s speech here, but it’s still a corker. Also fine, and somehow haunting as the boy who arrives at every sunset to announce that Godot won’t be coming today, is eighth-grader Jonathan P. LeFlore.
Of the two leads, Griffin is the more passive presence, but that doesn’t mean he can’t steal focus with a shrug or a facetiously mincing smile. His teamwork with Jones is exquisite a fine-tuning of every burlesque routine you’ve ever wanted to see revived. The two actors are reportedly longtime friends offstage (Jones has directed Griffin in August Wilson plays at Studio), and their comfort in working together comes through as mutual generosity.
Besides, if Jones seems the larger theatrical presence, that’s not entirely because he’s flirting with the audience at every possible opportunity. It’s at least partly because his face is plastered 15 feet high on the permanent billboard that identifies the theater on 14th Street. He’s become a regular presence at Studio, both in his semi-autobiographical shows and through his direction. He’s built up a rapport over time with the theater’s audience, and he uses it cannily here, winking, hectoring, and cajoling. And, of course, waiting.
For what?…Oh, probably for God, for salvation, for meaning, for something that matters. Beckett’s not saying, and neither is Zinoman. But she’s found ways to suggest all sorts of things about theater and performance, about humor and human desperation. The show is the funniest Godot you’re ever likely to see, and yet its last image two men in absolute stasis on a road to nowhere is still choke-inducing. The incompletion is so nearly complete, it takes your breath away. Don’t even think of not going.