Waiting for Godot: Samuel Beckett's Endless Zoom Call
A starry cast performs a new production of the existential masterpiece, specially made for the pandemic year.
Sometime in the past year, you've perhaps been on a seemingly interminable video conference and thought, I can't go on. But you go on. What other option is there? You have your ways of surviving the tedium, fine-tuned over this terrible year, just as Jeffrey Toobin has his. As have we all. And because of that, you might truly for the first time understand the plight of the aimless characters in Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot, now a new film directed by Scott Elliott, available for streaming from The New Group.
It takes the form of a Zoom call between Estragon (John Leguizamo) and Vladimir (Ethan Hawke), here portrayed as graying Gen-Xers surviving Covid in their dingy New York City apartments, which are obviously rent-controlled judging by the antique state of the fixtures (Vladimir appears to have a Franklin stove). Things are bad, but these stalwarts have come too far to lose heart now. "We should have thought of it a million years ago," Vladimir cheerfully observes, "in the nineties."
Vladimir and Estragon (Didi and Gogo for short) insist that their purpose for remaining on the call is that they are waiting for Godot (here pronounced "guh-dough" rather than the heavy-handed "God-oh" of the last Broadway revival). Godot is an elusive figure who only communicates his regrets through a messenger boy (Drake Bradshaw's deadpan diction, delivered over an upturned flashlight, transforms this into a horror film during his brief appearances). Yet day after day, they still wait.
Their insignificant banter is interrupted by the arrival of Pozzo (Tarik Trotter) and his mostly mute servant, Lucky (Wallace Shawn). Enjoying a bounty of wine and food, and decked-out in fur lapels, Pozzo is obviously one of those charmed individuals who has prospered during the pandemic. We suspect that the tower of bankers boxes occupying the corner behind him is full of Amazon stock certificates. Pozzo and Lucky indulge in the light S&M inherent in all employer-employee relationships, and then they are off, leaving Didi and Gogo to their waiting game. If you gather from this plot description that not much plot transpires over the course of three hours — yes.
Director Scott Elliott has ingeniously reimagined Waiting for Godot for the Zoom era, without changing a single word of Beckett's script. When a character needs a moment, he turns off his camera, leaving a black void with his name. An occasionally frozen or fuzzy picture suggests an unstable Internet connection, perhaps the result of stolen Wi-Fi (film editing by Yonatan Weinstein). Vladimir's blue bandana mask and Estragon's cocked Mets cap make them instantly recognizable figures from the streets of New York (excellent costumes by Qween Jean), while the erratic light streaming in from the high window of Didi's basement apartment tells us of the unremarkable passage of days (evocative production design by Derek McLane). "Time has stopped," Vladimir exclaims, and it's hard not to feel an odd kinship with the Beckettian clown.
All of the actors take ownership of these characters: Leguizamo and Hawke bicker like an old married couple, but they also partake in the kind of inside jokes that reveal a truly lasting relationship. Each man has his role, with Hawke's Didi the bossier of the two, as when he "whitesplains" to Gogo that his offstage abuse by a gang of thugs is his own fault. Leguizamo's Gogo oscillates between despair and joy in a way that feels undeniably human. Try not to smile when he delivers the line, "Nuttin' to be done!"
Trotter's Pozzo is vain and imperious, channeling every manager in a staff meeting when he impatiently asks, "Is everybody ready? Is everybody looking at me?!" While Shawn is mostly called to stare into the camera slack-jawed, he delivers Lucky's one a meandering speech, about obscure thinkers with names like Fartov and Belcher, with a kindly professorial flourish that makes you think there might actually be something to this nonsense, but that you're just too dense to get it. This talent is the citadel from which PhDs in the humanities are defended.
The human quest for meaning continues, but seven decades later, Waiting for Godot still forcefully asks the question, "What are you waiting for?" God? True love? A winning lottery ticket? A Covid-free world? Like Didi and Gogo, you might have to keep waiting. Or, you can turn off Zoom and step outside. The choice is yours.