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Published on May 18th, 2009 | by Sharilyn Johnson


Gushing for Godot

The approximate conversation when recently telling friends I would be seeing Roundabout Theatre’s production of Waiting for Godot on Broadway:

“It’s going to be great. Nathan Lane, John Goodman, and Bill Irwin”.

“Wow, Nathan Lane and John Goodman, that’s awesome!”

“They’re cool. But I’m totally going for Bill Irwin.”

“Yeah, I don’t know who that is.”

“Hmm. I don’t think we should be friends anymore.”

Lest I shrink my social circle even further, the Cliff’s Notes version of Bill’s career is as follows: Actor and clown, started out as a founding member of the Pickle Family Circus in the mid ’70s. First gained notoriety with his stage show The Regard of Flight in ’82 and moreso with Fool Moon in ’93. Between and since he’s appeared in a slew of films and tv shows, including as Anne Hathaway’s father in Rachael Getting Married and as Cindy Lou’s father in the live-action Grinch movie. Possibly cooler than his 2005 Tony win is the fact that he’s the second (and current) Mr. Noodle on Sesame Street.

laneirwinI first became aware of him in the late 80s when he guest starred on the Cosby Show as – appropriately – a New York vaudevillian clown. When Cliff takes Rudy and her friends to this “circus”, they learn that not all clowns wear red noses, fundamental lesson for this burgeoning young (9 years old when it aired!) comedic arts nerd.

Despite his success in New York theatre, Bill Irwin is hard to find here. Every time – and I do mean every time – I’ve visited the city, I’ve Googled him in advance, always coming up dry. When Godot was announced, I was ecstatic.

I should admit upfront that I’m not a fan of plays like Godot. Abstract, what-does-it-all-mean, no answers in the end… I recognize it’s an important (and relatively popular) work. But I worried I’d get lost halfway through and spend the balance of the 2 hours nursing a mild headache.

But I didn’t. Everything about this production is top-notch, enough to make a whiny I-don’t-wanna-use-my-brain patron like me thoroughly enjoy it. This was my first time seeing these four actors on stage (Irwin, Goodman, Lane, and John Glover) and was equally riveted by each of their performances. Of course, Irwin as Vladimir had my focus the most, and I took great pleasure in the occasions when he’d move his body in a manner that only Bill Irwin can move. John Goodman is such a force, beyond what I expected — huge in stature, huge in his performance as Pozzo. Nathan Lane as Estragon was able to make me forget he’s Nathan Lane, which can’t be an easy feat for someone so recognizable playing a character so destitute. John Glover has a task that makes me never want to attempt acting, because I have no idea how you’d even begin approaching a character like Lucky (whatever the answer, it earned him a Tony nomination).

And y’know, it was funny. Funnier than I ever would have expected, with a few cute rewrites tossed in to throw us off a little. I loved Irwin and Lane together, and their timing simply clicked. My favourite moment is a short piece of hat juggling between the two of them, which they executed perfectly with ease.

My understanding is that the set is a little controversial, because it contains (gasp) rocks in the background. I thought it was rather stunning myself, as I’m completely ignorant of the play’s conventions. Studio 54 is lovely, incidentally, though the noise coming through the side doors (motorcycle convention in town, seriously) was a major distraction at times.
My schedule only permitted a matinee performance, which turned out wonderfully. Despite sitting in the back row, I could easily see overtop the shrunken heads of the geriatric crowd. But even better, after the performance there was a q&a with a few members of the cast, and they invited everyone to move closer to the stage. I found myself 12 feet from John Goodman (who is unbelievably freakin’ hilarious as himself) and Bill Irwin. Could the day get much better? I desperately wanted to ask Bill if he would ever do the Happiness Lecture again (a stage show that ran only in Philly last year), but the rules of the q&a prevented us from asking anything not related to Godot/Beckett.

The q&a was quick but good (no dumb questions), and me and my bag full of Godot merch started heading out. I noticed that Bill had stopped to speak with an acquaintance right in the middle of one of the traffic paths near an exit. Which, coincidentally – okay, suddenly – became the exit I intended to use.

I keep a Sharpie in my purse when I’m travelling for this very reason, and thankfully the senior citizens were shuffling along slowly enough for me to quickly get my poster signed. Bill couldn’t have been more gracious. “It comes with best wishes,” he said. I lent my marker to a guy behind me who also wanted a signature, so I told Bill just to keep it in case he had to sign more. “No no, these things cost money,” he said, determined to give it back. I was swept up in the sea of exiting bluehairs, though, so I left it with him, equally determined to donate it… but behind-me-guy sprinted up behind me in the lobby and returned it. (The Boomerang Sharpie is now the working title of the absurdist play I have no intention of actually writing.)

While I would have loved to chat with Bill and ask him the Happiness Lecture question, I’m downright thrilled with my Godot experience. I rarely attend Broadway shows (this was my third ever), but this was $100 very well spent. If you’re at all interested in plays like Godot, you’ll love this production.

Waiting For Godot plays at Studio 54 until July 12, and Bill Irwin & Nathan Lane will appear on The View May 29.

Essential Bill Irwin:
NJ.com Godot interview
New York Magazine Godot interview
2000 Interview with Charlie Rose
Cosby Show (sans aforementioned educational context)
NYTimes story on The Happiness Lecture
wonderful radio interview about The Happiness Lecture

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About the Author

is the author of the book Bears & Balls: The Colbert Report A-Z. Called "one of the city’s most discriminating comedy critics” by NOW Magazine, Sharilyn has been covering comedy for longer than she cares to admit. She served as the comedy reporter for Winnipeg's Uptown Magazine for five years, and was the host of the radio show Laugh Tracks for three seasons. Her work has also appeared in the Toronto Star, the Winnipeg Free Press, The Apiary, and on CBC Radio's national comedy programs LOL and Definitely Not the Opera.

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