Beckett's Waiting for Godot is the tragedy of man comically told. Mike Nichols's Godot at Lincoln Center is the tragedy of an American theater turned into shtick. With this fractured Godot, Nichols proves yet again (as if it were necessary) that he is one of the greatest directors of mediocre material. Not content with finding mediocrity where it so plentifully exists, he must create it where it isn't: in the heart of a masterpiece.
The reason Beckett is execrated in Communist countries and trivialized in capitalist ones is that neither ideology can accept his stance: a heroic negation of any kind of salvation, so monumental as to dwarf the myths of redemption according to Marx, Mammon, or the Judeo-Christian God. The only way man can endure his mortality and assorted miseries is with an epic vaudeville act: You only laugh when it hurts -- and it hurts all the time. The sole surcease is death, the classic case of a cure worse than the malady. This is a laugh, all right, but not one that leaves the throat unlacerated.
So let me make one thing clear right away: What you can see at the Mitzi Newhouse if you are able to get in (even many subscribers have been denied tickets) is not Godot but some rowdily performed piece of paltry burlesque dipped in a Beckett sauce. Waiting for Godot is a tragicomic masterwork; wading through this Waiting for Godot is a passable pastime, a good enough way of avoiding a confrontation with the essential.
To start with, the ecumenical is consistently shrunk to the American, rather like turning the universe into the Universal back lot. Tony Walton, an expert in glamour and glamorized poverty (consider his set for The House of Blue Leaves ), has given Nichols a jaunty sandbox filled with American bric-a-brac, from a rusty Nevada license plate (remember where atom bombs are detonated?) to a picturesque coyote's skull and other bones, from trendy sunglasses (Gogo goggles?) to a hubcap to play with, but, in view of the size of the stage, no Frisbee.
The play has new lines written into it, all vulgarisms and quite uncalled for. Many are spoken by Vladimir and Estragon during Lucky's monologue to discourage the speaker. Coyote jawbones become a movie clapper in Estragon's hands, or Yorick's skull as this gung ho Gogo, Robin Williams, mutters a Hamletic "Alas!" He also wields a large bone with words appropriate to an Oscar presentation, and goes through his usual vocal routines, doing a buzzer on a TV game show, a takeoff on the Twilight Zone menace music, and all sorts of trick voices, as if this were Good Morning, Godot. Steve Martin, as Vladimir, takes fewer liberties, but his repertoire of reactions to the slur "Crritic!" -- which includes a sort of death on the installment plan along with jack-in-the-box revivals -- would feed an entire family of clowns for one solid engagement. And we get added dialogue like the archly and invidiously contemporary "You're a liberal?!!" And so on.
And on. According to a program note, this stuff is from a brand-new version of the play, to be published by Faber and Faber in London. But what Faber and Grove Press are publishing is Beckett's Theatrical Notebook for the Berlin production (1975), with addenda from its San Quentin revival (1984) -- unlikely to contain references to the recent presidential race. I think we are being gulled by Greg Mosher of Lincoln Center and Nichols, with his directorial tricks.
Didi performs his morning ablutions with his own matutinal spittle, catches a few lice on his belly, and waves off an extruded fart with a lighted match. Beckett? Surely not. Steve Martin? He has some decency. Nichols? You betcha. Anyone who can have the barren tree, which in Act II sprouts "four or five leaves" and prompts Vladimir's "It's covered with leaves," display only one leaf -- thus changing a pathetically hopeful remark into an imbecile one -- has no feeling or understanding for the play. (And don't tell me that Beckett himself rewrote the number of leaves!) Nichols's scenario of gimmicks obliterates the text.
Pathos is now almost completely missing; what little is left is mostly in Jennifer Tipton's literally stunning lighting: Her sunset is what Jules Laforgue must have envisioned with "un coucher de cosmogonies." And Martin-Didi's repeated message to Godot, "Tell him you saw us" (later reduced to "saw me"), is quietly affecting -- as so much else ought to be. But the trouble with casting Williams and Martin in these roles is that they make too young, too well-fed, too famous a pair. Instead of conveying half a century's struggling and starving, they suggest a "Fifty Years of TV Comedy" retrospective at the Museum of Broadcasting.
As Pozzo, F. Murray Abraham is better, but the actor has such a common face, voice, and accent that he does not embody a usurping upper class. He exudes mafioso nastiness; conversely, Kurt Kasznar, in the Broadway production, scored with a genial look and sound belied by evil words and actions. Much the best is Bill Irwin as Lucky, speaking as well as miming expertly, but looking too much like a nice Ivy Leaguer of bygone days, his crew cut inexplicably dyed white. Lukas Haas makes a decent Boy. And, I repeat, Martin has good moments; only Williams (who even eats that last carrot as if it were a chic hors d'oeuvre) and Nichols are unpardonable. The audience at the first critics' preview laughed itself silly. Yet if theatergoers are really so benighted that only this kind of Godot can reach them, they are not worth reaching. Beckett's God, or Godot, is absent; Nichols's Godot is dead.