While celebrity casting certainly helps sell tickets, sometimes it can make a show more about the actors than the play itself. Regardless of the quality of the production, it’s often hard to separate the stars from roles, to judge the work by the writing and direction instead of the famous faces. Such has been the case with Samuel Beckett’s mid-nineteenth-century absurdist masterpiece Waiting for Godot. Here in New York City, Mike Nichols’s 1988 Lincoln Center revival featured Robin Williams, Steve Martin, Bill Irwin, F. Murray Abraham, and Lukas Haas; a 2009 Broadway adaptation boasted Nathan Lane, John Goodman, John Glover, and Irwin; and a 2013 Broadway smash had Sir Patrick Stewart, Sir Ian McKellen, Billy Crudup, and Shuler Hensley. New Yiddish Rep’s 2013 reimagined version in Yiddish, Vartn Af Godot, might not have had well-known actors, but the translation became the star. (It’s back for an encore engagement this winter at the 14th St. Y.) So it’s thrilling to see Irish theater company Druid’s adaptation at John Jay College’s Gerald W. Lynch Theater, where it continues through November 13 as part of Lincoln Center’s White Light Festival. The cast, at least here in America, is unknown, and they speak in Beckett’s native Irish tongue (even if the work was originally written in French), so the play’s the thing.
The tall and thin Marty Rea is Vladimir, or Didi, with shorter and stouter Aaron Monaghan as Estragon, or Gogo, somewhat reminiscent of Abbott and Costello. Francis O’Connor’s set features a leafless, curved tree and a smooth stone, possibly polished from years of Gogo sitting on it. O’Connor also designed the costumes, which include the two leads’ black, semi-homeless wear, bowler hats, and Gogo’s decrepit shoes, which have left one of his feet bloody. As they wait for Godot even though they have no idea why, they mutter about the burden of being human, dancing, crucifixion, and time. “We’ve no rights any more?” Gogo asks. “You’d make me laugh if it wasn’t prohibited,” Didi responds. “We’ve lost our rights?” Gogo repeats. “We got rid of them,” Didi answers. They get to the heart of the matter when Didi explains, “One is what one is. . . . The essential doesn’t change.”
They are confused when a boisterous man named Pozzo (Rory Nolan) shows up, dragging an apparent slave, Lucky (Garrett Lombard), with him; Lucky is not so lucky, carrying lots of luggage and being pulled by a noose. A noose had previously been referred to when Didi and Gogo examined the bare tree and considered hanging themselves from it, at one point curving their bodies to match the bend in the tree. And in each act a boy (either Nathan Reid or Jaden Pace) confuses them even further. Tony winner Garry Hynes’s (The Beauty Queen of Leenane, The Cripple of Inishmaan) direction makes such connections clearer than usual, allowing the audience to glory in Beckett’s language, from very funny conversations to a dizzying monologue delivered by Lucky. “That passed the time,” Didi says. “It would have passed in any case,” Gogo replies. “Yes, but not so rapidly,” Didi concludes. This two-and-a-half-hour production is more than a fine way to pass the time, offering a fresh, comic look at an old favorite.