Theater review by Raven Snook
The genuine friendship between Michael Shannon and Paul Sparks distinguishes the latest major New York staging of Samuel Beckett's absurdist landmark Waiting for Godot. As the melancholy Gogo and the upbeat Didi, two tramps killing time in limbo as they wait for a visit that may never come, the actors share a palpable mutual affection; their long collaborative history, which includes The Killer onstage and Boardwalk Empire on TV, imbues their relationship with breathtaking verisimilitude. You really believe these guys have been bickering for as long as they can remember.
Theatre for the New Audience's resident director Arin Arbus, known for her lucid mountings of classics, eschews stylization or high concept. The design is quintessential Godot: Scenic designer Riccardo Hernández's dusty thrust stage is dominated by one sorry tree, and Susan Hilferty's ratty costumes are topped with beaten-up bowlers. This Godot isn't commenting on any particular crisis, just the cruelty of existence itself. Like anyone who has lived long enough, Gogo and Didi have seen some shit.
As usual, Act I—in which Beckett establishes the tramps’ repetitive rhythms—is a bit of a slog. Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart masked the tedium by leaning into comedy in the play’s 2013 Broadway revival, but Shannon and Sparks don't hide their characters' desperation or dysfunction; they want their despondency to be infectious. They excel at bringing out the aching humanity in these wastrels, especially in the second half, which is warmer, funnier and, ultimately, shattering. Shannon's intense, glowering demeanor is familiar from his other performances, but Sparks is a marvel. His Didi is a twitchy, weirdly lovable mess; he just wants to help, even when the goal is suicide.
A few strangers interrupt their nothingness: The domineering Pozzo (Ajay Naidu); his downtrodden slave, Lucky (played by Jeff Biehl with more spittle than a Jonathan Groff solo); and a pair of young brothers (Toussaint Francois Battiste) employed by the long-awaited Godot. Naidu is a bit over-the-top in the first half, but when he returns in Act Two, blinded and battered, his change of fortune is startling and chilling. It's been 70 years since the play premiered, and this production is evidence of its ongoing power. Purposefully ambiguous, this play seems timeless. Godot, like Gogo and Didi, isn't going anywhere.
Waiting for Godot. Theatre for a New Audience (Off Broadway). By Samuel Beckett. Dir. Arin Arbus. With Michael Shannon, Paul Sparks. Running time: 2hrs 40mins. One intermission.
Waiting for Godot | Photograph: Courtesy Gerry Goodstein