Stars Shine In Beckett

Originally published on November 12, 1988 | Financial Times (London) | written by Frank Lipsius

Waiting for Godot at the Lincoln Centre was bound to be the hottest ticket in New York this season. Performed in the small, 300 seat Mitzi E. Newhouse theatre by a cast of Hollywood stars, Mike Nichols' production is scheduled for only seven weeks to let its principals, Steve Martin and Robin Williams, go back to earning real money. Meanwhile, they bring the panache of their standup comic personas to Beckett's marvellously malleable text.

But does the nonchalance of their hip and cynical generation do justice to Beckett? The answer is yes, despite liberties the author would no doubt look askance at, since he is a notorious purist about productions of his plays. There is only one false note, at the end of Act one when Robin Williams as Estragon groans unnecessarily as the lights go down on their inability to move.

Yet throughout the production Williams does a complete pantomime with only slight reference to the text. When Vladimir hurriedly exits, Williams stares after him, laughingly lifting his leg and scratching the ground like a dog. He picks up a steer skull and addresses it like Hamlet or moves the jaws like a ventriloquist. To get Lucky to stop talking he shouts out "You're a liberal!" in a mocking reference to the presidential campaign.

After improvising most of the long monologues in his recent hit film, Good Morning, Vietnam , Williams could claim he is downright restrained.

Steve Martin turns Vladimir into a robust, familiar, slightly bombastic character with complete fidelity to the lines. He assumes Vladimir has some affliction that forces him to grab his crotch at regular intervals, but the words are sacred.

Martin shows just how adequate the spare dialogue is to form a complete character. Pozzo and Lucky struggle to keep up. Academy Award winner F. Murray Abraham's assertive Pozzo needs the blindness of the second act to knock out his initial Mafia don mannerisms. Bill Irwin's Lucky looks pathetic and dances vivaciously, both of which he may be supposed to do but looks incongruous doing them.

The previous generation of American Beckett actors tended to look emaciated and sound foreign, turning the play into a dirge. Williams and Martin follow more in the tradition of the great comic Bert Lahr, the first American Estragon.

Tony Walton's set looks so much like a romanticised American desert it could be a Sam Shepard play. Besides the steer skulls, the sandy road is surrounded by a large tractor tyre and a couple of burned out campfires. Far from accepting the desolate moonscape Beckett ordained, Nichols specifies America by referring to Napa, California's wine growing region. The playbill notes that the text was provided by the author in August 1988, presumably for this production. But the change of locale was probably not among the playwright's alterations, which are unnoticeable. For an American audience, the production rescues profundity from boredom while showing the very best a polished music hall veneer can do for a classic text.

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