For Nathan Lane, Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot is not a dark and despairing existential allegory about two sad men who spend seemingly endless days and nights alongside a tree, on a desolate expanse of road, waiting for someone named Godot who does not show up.
"Even though Beckett said there's nothing funnier than unhappiness, and the play at times seems bleak, I think there's hopefulness in it," says Lane, who is starring with Bill Irwin at Studio 54 in a Roundabout Theatre Company production of the Beckett masterpiece. "I think there's hopefulness in the human connection the men have, a dependency on each other. I think it's about their belief in what they have to do, and how they help each other through it." And besides, Lane says, there's the comedy, which at times resembles an old Abbott and Costello routine. "It can be a very poetic play. And then on the next page it sounds like a more elegant version of 'Who's on First?'"
Lane's comic genius has lit up Broadway for a quarter century. Irwin has been a playwright, director, actor, dancer, choreographer, performance artist and clown. He has acted in Godot before, as the slave Lucky in the 1988 Lincoln Center Theater production with Steve Martin and Robin Williams. The Roundabout production's cast includes John Goodman and (2009 Tony Award nominee) John Glover. The director is Anthony Page, who won a Tony in 1997 for A Doll's House.
Irwin, who plays Vladimir to Lane's Estragon, says that for him, the key is that connection between the characters. "You must ground everything you do in their relationship, whatever the tangibles are," he says. Lane agrees. Because everything revolves around the relationship, he says, "I think I've never been so dependent on another actor. The play speaks to different people in different ways, and that's why it's a masterpiece. But ultimately it starts with these two men on a country road waiting for this gentleman who may or may not show."
Irwin says that "Vladimir has a professorial air about him, a protective air. He thinks he should be in charge. But like in any good comedy, he's hopeless. Estragon is always stepping in." Estragon, Lane says, "is the more physical. He has all these ailments. The two characters seem to have a very long past together. They are like two sides of the same person. "
One thing Irwin loves about being in the play is a chance to perform "some of the words that I have been reading all these decades and that have resonated so much: 'Was I sleeping, while the others suffered? Am I sleeping now? Tomorrow, when I wake, or think I do, what shall I say of today?' As you get older, those lines are not abstract. And 'What are we doing here, that is the question.' It's a joke. But it's also a statement. That is the essential question — what are we doing here?"