Late in Act I of the new Mike Nichols production of "Waiting for Godot," one wait is over. Not the eternal wait for Godot, of course, but the wait to see how, if ever, Mr. Nichols and his all-star company might connect to the Samuel Beckett play that brought the theater into the terrifying limbo of the nuclear age.
The scene is set in the middle of nowhere, at the end of another long day, indistinguishable from any other day. Vladimir, the tramp played by Steve Martin, has been passing the time with his companion, Estragon, played by Robin Williams. There is nothing to be done except wait in vain for some justification to live until tomorrow. And now, as burlesque parlance has it, comes the final kick in the pants: A boy (Lukas Haas) walks on to announce that Godot, who may be that justification, will not be coming tonight.
Disappointing as this news is, Mr. Martin relaxes his face into a childlike smile and instructs the messenger, "Tell him you saw us." As he delivers the line, Mr. Martin's countenance takes on the radiant orange glow of sunset, as if the simplest imaginable proof of his own existence -- being visible to another -- were somehow a glimpse of salvation. In this quiet moment, as acted with plaintive wistfulness and cloaked in wintry dusk (by the lighting designer Jennifer Tipton), Mr. Nichols's "Godot" at last achieves the pathos of Beckett's fundamental image of man, born of the charnel house of World War II. Stripped of absolutely everything, including any external sign of a rationally or divinely ordered civilization, a Beckett hobo will still reach within himself to find some tiny shred of human dignity that will allow him, bravely, to go on.
One wishes that the rest of this evening were as pure as that haunting tableau. For all that has been written about "Godot" since it began remaking the world's theater, no play could be more elemental in either form or content. "Godot" speaks equally to prison inmates and university students because it reduces the task of existence to its humblest essentials: eating, excretion, sleeping, companionship, waiting anxiously for life to reach some point (whatever that point may be). That simplicity, expressed in theatrical terms of matching spareness, too often eludes Mr. Nichols and his company. While ostensibly working in the unpretentious circumstances of Lincoln Center's smallest theater, the Mitzi E. Newhouse, Mr. Nichols has at times turned "Godot" into exactly the sort of production that Beckett's theater rebels against.
Given the talent of everyone involved -- the cast also includes F. Murray Abraham and Bill Irwin as its excellent Pozzo and Lucky -- the production is sometimes entertaining and never boring. The evening begins on a high note as Mr. Williams and Mr. Martin, each a graceful physical comedian, make the most of funny business involving ill-fitting boots and unchecked body odor. From then on, the stars come across as comfortable, disciplined stage performers, seemingly eager to serve Beckett's play rather than to use it as a trampoline for their own egos.
That's not quite the case with Mr. Nichols. The naked realism of "Godot," which belongs to no specific place or time but to all places and all time, does not suit a director whose gift is for comedy strongly rooted in contemporary social detail. Rather than expanding his artistic reach to meet Beckett's, he contracts the play to fit his own chilly esthetic. The efficient, emotionally remote approach Mr. Nichols takes to "Godot" is not all that different from the one he took to his last Broadway production, that rat-a-tat barrage of Jewish mother-in-law jokes titled "Social Security."
The director tightens his leash the second the houselights dim: the first scene is heralded by an apocalyptic rumble (lest anyone doubt that Beckett wrote in the shadow of the bomb) followed by a vaudeville-theater drum roll (so we can remember that Vladimir and Estragon are in the baggy-pants-and-bowler-hat comic tradition of Laurel and Hardy). Then we get a good look at Tony Walton's set. While this "Godot" takes place in a circle of dirt rather than by the country road indicated in Beckett's text, Mike Nichols is no Peter Brook. The sandbox at the Newhouse isn't the abstract setting of a Brook rethinking of a classic but is instead a realistic rendering of a rubble-strewn, present-day American desert, complete with a rusted Nevada license plate.
Philistine and reductive as it may be, there's nothing intrinsically malevolent about applying a glaze of Sam Shepard-David Hockney chic to "Godot" -- even if Beckett dialogue mentioning the Macon country now refers to the Napa. (Why hasn't a reference to the Eiffel Tower been changed to the Trans-America pyramid?) But once Mr. Williams starts availing himself of the cowboy-movie accents and jokey props (a coyote skull, novelty-shop eyeglasses) afforded by the setting, it's clear that the switch in locale exists in part to prompt more comic business than the ample music hall routines Beckett already provides. Mr. Nichols abhors the pauses where feeling might enter "Godot," so he fills most of them up with shtick. Even the set's tree is given more business: the joke in which Vladimir refers to the nearly bare tree as being "covered with leaves" is inflated by reducing the number of leaves on its branch from Beckett's specified "four or five" to a lonely one.
The most frenetic horseplay belongs to Mr. Williams, who at one point regurgitates the theme music of television's "Twilight Zone" as if he were still playing his old sitcom character of Mork. A brilliant mimic, the actor never runs out of wacky voices, but where is his own voice? As "Good Morning, Vietnam" seemed to evaporate whenever Mr. Williams had to forsake comedy routines for love scenes, so his Estragon vanishes whenever he has to convey genuine panic or loneliness or despair. There's more humor (and heartfelt agony) in the famous Richard Avedon photographic portrait of Bert Lahr's Estragon than there is in a whole night of Mr. Williams's sweaty efforts to keep us in stitches.
Mr. Nichols's relentless pacing of the verbal volleys no doubt dictates some of Mr. Williams's performance, but Mr. Martin's Vladimir rises above it with the sweet innocence that made his latter-day Cyrano so sympathetic in "Roxanne." To be sure, Mr. Martin invokes his own comic style (and sometimes hilariously so); he provides one of his quintessentially crazed, open-mouthed double takes after Estragon insultingly calls him a "critic." Still, Beckett's character usually comes first, and it seems a waste that Mr. Williams rarely stands still long enough to permit his partner to engage him in an intimate exchange. Without repose and rapport, Vladimir and Estragon cannot become a classic comedy team, let alone an affecting representation of two interdependent souls who haven't been able to live with or without each other for 50 years.
Perhaps because Pozzo and Lucky's partnership follows the master and servant hierarchy of an older world -- and the theatrical artifice of old-fashioned drama -- Mr. Abraham and Mr. Irwin achieve the symbiosis that the stars do not. The flamboyant Mr. Abraham plays Pozzo as part Mafioso, part anachronistic ham actor, while Mr. Irwin offers a Buster Keaton-like mournfulness as his quaking slave. When this couple reappears in Act II, Pozzo now blind and Lucky now dumb, the actors and Mr. Nichols go further, creating what amounts to an affecting, if sentimental, encapsulation of the tethered relationship of Lear to his fool.
At such moments, one feels privileged to be at this "Godot." But those denied that privilege should not feel that the loss is a tragedy -- or even a theatrical deprivation comparable to missing the other Beckett work at the Newhouse this year, the stunning Gate Theater Dublin production of "I'll Go On." Though Mr. Nichols's "Godot," by dint of its fleeting run, is a box-office phenomenon, the play remains the permanent phenomenon. Audiences will still be waiting for a transcendent "Godot" long after the clowns at Lincoln Center, like so many others passing through Beckett's eternal universe before them, have come and gone.