Counting The Norman Conquests as three, eight Broadway shows opened just before the Tony nominations’ cutoff date. This manic pileup carried a surprisingly un-Broadwayish weightiness. After Ayckbourn’s rotating-repertory trio came Desire Under the Elms and Waiting for Godot, two somber modernist works that Broadway never wholly learned to love, and two relatively obscure light-comic antiques, 1934’s Accent on Youth and 1971’s The Philanthropist, refitted for popular male stars of today. Of the eight openings, the only one resembling 2009 Broadway business as usual was 9 to 5, yet another musical version of a not-quite-forgotten film.
Of the lot, Waiting for Godot (Roundabout Studio 54) undoubtedly qualifies as the most notable event, both as the best piece of writing on the list and by dint of Anthony Page’s relatively solid, sane production. Godot has not been an uncommon sight in New York since its Broadway premiere in 1956. There have been at least half a dozen Off-Broadway productions, including two editions of Beckett’s own staging and the post-Katrina version with which the Classical Theatre of Harlem created a stir a few years ago. Studied everywhere and a known quantity to most theater artists, the play is remote only from Broadway’s recent experience.
On a country road, two tramps, Didi (Bill Irwin) and Gogo (Nathan Lane), wait every evening for someone named Godot, who never seems to come and whom they might not even recognize if he did. Apart from the nightly arrival of a small boy who may or may not be Godot’s messenger, their only encounters are with an arrogant figure named Pozzo (John Goodman) and his doggedly servile factotum, Lucky (John Glover), whose knotty relationship seems to cover all the best and worst possible interactions of master and servant. Their two contrasting scenes, one at the center of each act, function mainly to divert Didi and Gogo from the agony of their own lives.
In terms of strict dramatic logic, the play contains no action. Act Two is Act One with variations, except for two minute differences: The barren tree they wait by (which makes them contemplate hanging themselves) sprouts a few leaves, and Didi’s response to the boy messenger is altered by one word. Those who recall the tramps’ opening conversation about the two thieves and the four gospels may see the changed word as containing the tragic core of what’s otherwise, essentially, an extended vaudeville routine with metaphysical flavoring.
Though bare of drama and stark in ambience, Godot is a very rich work, full of physical business and verbal detail, of a kind even a Broadway audience can love, that ingeniously conceals the nothingness going on, often by brazenly making it the topic of conversation (“That passed the time.” “It would have passed in any case.” “Yes, but not so rapidly”). Beckett’s sensibility is bawdy, his dialogue tautly rhythmed even when poetic; he welds theology to the wisecrack.
Page’s production achieves its rapport with Broadwaygoers by doing one important thing right: He’s made his skillful cast play Beckett’s terse text as human conversation, instead of either ornate abstract poesy or a clown routine stylized past all meaning. He’s achieved particular success with Lane, whose frowsty, glum, pathetic Gogo is one of his best creations yet, and a triumph with Goodman, who conveys the self-centered meanness under Pozzo’s patrician airs with scary conviction.
Page has slightly less success with Irwin, whose postmodern-clown background always tempts him to formalize his speeches, and with Glover, who gets the mania of Lucky but not the pain. And in his eagerness to keep the event moving, Page has let the conversation’s colloquial flow rush past the many places where Beckett’s characters take their time; time is the play’s essence. Even Santo Loquasto’s set, imposing a rocky enclosure on Beckett’s country road, seems eager to force into tighter focus a dramatic event that’s meant to chill us by drifting away into infinity.
Christopher Hampton’s The Philanthropist (American Airlines Theatre) drifts away into dramatic nothingness, leaving no feeling behind, despite the many clever devices with which Hampton has tried to tighten it. Molière’s misanthrope, Alceste, is a figure of power: His fierce integrity makes everyone seek his approval. Hampton’s philanthrope, Philip (Matthew Broderick), approves amicably of everybody and everything, making it hard to fathom why the professorial intellects around him would desire his approval or, if female, desire him. Apart from constantly offering everybody else food (which Hampton inexplicably equates with gluttony), Philip, a philologist, seems mainly interested in constructing anagrams and tracking other people’s verbal patterns.
This pallid setup generates some amusing theatrical games, but no drama. The minimal plot (will hapless hero get spunky girl in time for final clinch?), an old-fashioned standard model, works very well for Accent on Youth, of which The Philanthropist sometimes resembles a fogged mirror image. But it can’t energize a work in which the hero is so pleasantly passive. Earlier productions, to dodge this defect, cast lead actors whose inner fire belied Philip’s outward placidity, but Broderick’s genius lies in the comedy of solipsism. He lures you into his dream world rather than stepping out into yours, but contentedly passive Philip has no such place. David Grindley’s production situates him in a believable though exceptionally drab university atmosphere, and the Roundabout’s cheesy sound system makes the Baroque music between scenes hit your ears with painful coarseness.
9 to 5‘s score comes off sounding classier. Songwriter Dolly Parton’s honest, simple-hearted good sense comes through clearly, empowering the four terrific performers in the lead roles: Allison Janney, Stephanie J. Block, and Megan Hilty as the variously victimized office gals, and Marc Kudisch as the preening boss they all abominate. Unhappily, other aspects of the show—a lackluster book, busy-busy direction, and bland choreography—only hinder these hard-working folk, and the story’s tricksy, urbanized comic tone makes a bad match for Parton’s country-bred sincerity. Her talent needs, and deserves, a more heartfelt tale to tell.