Clowning Around with a Classic

Originally published on November 21, 1988 | TIME Magazine | written by William A. Henry III

Financially, Lincoln Center's Waiting for Godot was a triumph before it started rehearsals. The combination of an all-star cast, headed by Robin Williams and Steve Martin, and a run limited to seven weeks in a 291-seat theater made the show a sellout. In fact, the box office never even opened to the general public: the Manhattan arts complex's 36,000 drama subscribers were enough to fill the 16,000 places more than twice over.

Artistically, Williams and Martin, as comics of quicksilver intelligence and bleak vision, seem eminently suited to play Samuel Beckett's battered tramps. Oscar winner F. Murray Abraham (Amadeus) and performance artist Bill Irwin are nonpareil casting for the pompous landlord and his slavish manservant. Director Mike Nichols, a winner of eight Tony Awards, has an apt gift for seamless transitions from farce to ferocity.

Yet the show that opened for review this week sadly recalled the 1956 U.S. debut, in which Bert Lahr and Tom Ewell found the laughs, and interpolated a few more, without grasping the work's tragic austerity. Williams and Martin may comprehend the play but do not show faith in it. Although the puns and pratfalls come mostly from Beckett, there are inexcusable interjections, and the emotional force is dissipated in kickshaws and clowning.

Beckett sees human existence as haplessly ephemeral -- eroded away, the very moment it is lived, by aging and pain and forgetfulness and death. "They give birth astride of a grave," one of the characters cries out in the play's most memorable line. The barren landscape of Godot is not recognizably our world. The fetid tramps sleep in ditches and are beaten by nameless others in the night. But their frustrated yearning to be recognized and their sense of life as perpetual diminishment should seem universal. Instead, the supreme existentialist tragedy of the 20th century has been reduced to a heartwarming revue sketch about the homeless.

The chief sinner is Williams. When the slave Lucky makes a long, anguished speech, a flux of debased knowledge, Williams enacts the audience's presumed boredom at having to think. He scampers. He pounds the ground. He thrusts a big bone into the slave's hands as though it were an Oscar and tells him to "thank the Academy." As Martin feigns death, Williams hovers over him, murmuring the pet name "Didi, Didi," then segues into the theme from The Twilight Zone . Martin is never so outrageous, but his familiar cool-guy strut and laid-back vocalisms keep him from inhabiting his character. Irwin is grayly competent as Lucky. The only really satisfying performance is Abraham's. Hugely self-satisfied in the first act, blind and pathetic in the second, he steals the show by simply acting his role while the stars are embellishing theirs.

After the stage run closes Nov. 27, the production is expected to be taped for TV. It may work better in that format. Even onstage, if audience members can forget the Beckett masterpiece that is being obliterated, this Godot calls to mind some of the best surreal comic sketches on Saturday Night Live -- a show on which all the principal actors except the pristine Abraham have appeared.

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