Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot is considered the most important play of the 20th century. However, it is not an easy play to stage as almost nothing happens. Its themes of the daily rituals of life and surviving in the face of adversity are existential but not particularly dramatic. Arin Arbus’ revival for Theatre for a New Audience is particularly disappointing because she has worked with Michael Shannon before on Denis Johnson’s Des Moines in the fall of 2022 at TFANA and he and Paul Sparks have worked together at TFANA on Ionesco’s The Killer in 2014 which is similar in tone and style.
Ironically there is no rapport or chemistry between Shannon and Sparks playing friends who have been traveling together for 50 years. As Estragon, in need of sleep and with shoes that don’t fit, Shannon’s deadpan demeanor and poker face expression are unsuitable for a play in which all the actors have is their ability to communicate with each other as there is not much action, and less plot. As the more self-sufficient Vladimir, Sparks is better and more expressive but he can’t carry the play alone. Playing opposites, one pessimistic, one optimistic, it is important that we feel the tension and the link between them which here is latent. They are also somewhat younger than the roles are usually cast considering they mention having been together for five decades.
Another problem is that Arbus does not seem to have an original point of view and the play just seems to roll along. She has used a very leisurely pace so the play at two hours and 50 minutes including an intermission seems much longer than it actually is. In this play, famously controlled play by the Beckett estate, there are no changes allowed so all there is for the director is to bring out the characters’ personalities and reactions which are subdued here.
However, the one difference from earlier productions is the set by Riccardo Hernández. What has been in recent years at the Samuel H. Scripps Mainstage of the Polonsky Shakespeare Center is a thrust stage with the audience sitting on three sides. For this show, Hernández has designed a space in which the audience sits on two sides of the playing area and the road that Vladimir and Estragon travel runs the length of the theater from wall to wall past the usual proscenium with a double yellow line down the middle. While the stage directions say a country road, this has the feeling of an urban environment and changes the play a good deal. It also remains rather distracting throughout the performance.
The other two characters, Pozzo and Lucky representing a master/slave relationship, seem to be giving an equally superficial reading of the play. Ajay Naidu as the patrician Pozzo and Jeff Beihl as his luggage carrier tied to him by a rope round his neck are as facile and surface as Shannon and Sparks’ performances. This is particularly damaging as there is no plot to speak of but character reaction is all. Toussaint Francois Battiste who made a strong impression as Travis in The Public Theater revival of A Raisin in the Sun is also very muted as the boy sent to deliver Godot’s message but he does suggest the fear of which he speaks. Susan Hilferty’s costumes for the tramps Vladimir and Estragon seem a little too neat for two men living on the road for many years while Pozzo and Lucky coming from a higher economic environment seem to be a little less refined than one might expect.
Now that we have been seeing the play for 70 years, it is possible to make some statements about its supposed meaning. Back in the early days much was made of the character names (Estragon – French; Vladimir – Russian; Pozzo – Italian; Lucky – English) but now this seems a dead end. The endless waiting for Godot who never arrives but will always be coming tomorrow seems to depict the existential situation of hope and making do with what one has today.
In the course of the play’s two acts which take place on two successive days, Vladimir and Estragon go through the same activities over and over again, complaining about the same things. Their inertia is represented by their repeated exchange (“Shall we go?” “Yes. Let’s go.”) – and yet they do not move. Unfortunately, this production of a play about the monotony of daily life remains inert when it should keep us engaged and involved. This does a disservice to the author, the actors and the audience.
Waiting for Godot (extended through December 23, 2023)
Theatre for a New Audience
Samuel H. Scripps Mainstage at the Polonsky Shakespeare Center, 262 Ashland Place, in Brooklyn
For tickets, call 646-553-3880 or visit http://www.tfana.org
Running time: two hours and 50 minutes with one intermission