Theater Review: WAITING FOR GODOT (The New Group Off Stage)

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by Tony Frankel on May 14, 2021

in Theater-New York,Virtual

ZOOM AND DOOM AND GLOOM IN A ROOM

Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot is not an easy play to write about, let alone produce, act, or even watch. It’s challenging, opaque, and ambiguous. On the surface, it’s about nothing at all. Deep down, however, it’s about everything. It carries a multiplicity of meanings that accumulate like the rings on a tree or sand in an hourglass. There are religious, political, psychological, and sociological interpretations, allegorical and autobiographical interpretations, even homoerotic interpretations. In a sense, they’re all valid ways of reading Waiting for Godot.

clockwise from top left: Tarik Trotter, Wallace Shawn, John Leguizamo, Ethan Hawke.

There’s basically two men, Vladimir (Ethan Hawke) and Estragon (John Leguizamo), waiting by the side of the road under a barren tree for someone named Godot. They’re occasionally interrupted, first by Pozzo (Tarik Trotter) and Lucky (Wallace Shawn), then by an unnamed boy (Drake Bradshaw). Otherwise not much happens. As if to underscore the absurdity, the tedium, and the inanity of it all, both acts are nearly identical. One gets the impression that one day for Vladimir and Estragon is much like any other day.

Ethan Hawke and John Leguizamo

Here, director Scott Elliot, given the very limited circumstances of Zoom theater (which will probably remain after COVID is a thing of the past, Godot help us), eschews the traditional or classical production of Waiting for Godot. And even though The New Group received permission from the notoriously strict Beckett estate, using all dialogue intact, the infamous tree is not for us to see — it’s in the characters’ view, not ours. What little we do see of designer Derek McLane‘s dusky interior appears as a Western lean-to in a time of economic depression. While the setting has changed, Elliot still seems somewhat hampered to add much that is iconoclastic or shocking; thus, while I was enjoying the performances, at just over three hours running time the delivery needed more energy, urgency, humor, and chemistry between players — the latter of which is impossible to get as they aren’t in the same room.

Ethan Hawke and John Leguizamo

And yet, one can easily interpret that these folks are waiting for the current epidemic to end, as they are all literally in modern-day isolation (Elliot cleverly adds masks and techno-glitches such as screen freezes). The bright side to the pre-recorded virtual offering are the close-up shots, which offer something intimate rarely found in any production: a thrilling connection with individual performances. When Leguizamo inches his eyes toward the camera, you can almost smell his breath. And watching Mr. Shawn’s reactions as the mostly mute Lucky is a masterclass in how to listen and react as an actor.

clockwise from top left: Tarik Trotter, Wallace Shawn, John Leguizamo and Ethan Hawke

Despite the rather excellent performances and Beckett’s always intriguing dialogue, something is missing — something vital. Occasionally, as I said, the pacing is off; the dialogue could have been hurried along and more slapstick included. This show needs a theater. It’s a bit easy to nod off briefly, as Estragon does, or think the play’s over after the first half. Yes, it’s a demanding play that asks questions it doesn’t even attempt to answer — Godot is whatever the spectator wants him, or it, to be. But this production is so gloomy that existentialism takes a back seat to my desire for theater to return soon.

photos courtesy of The New Group Off Stage

Waiting for Godot
The New Group Off Stage
in association with John Ridley’s Nō Studios and Frank Marshall
for on demand streaming through June 30, 2021 (3-day rental $19.99; 7-day rental $24.99), visit The New Group

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