In his later years, Pablo Picasso found a certain profit in repainting the works of other masters in his own style. The act was the purest form of homage: by filtering a painting through his own hands, Picasso was attempting to possess those elements of the piece that previously had possessed him. Such appropriation, it should be noted, is as much an attempt on the copier's part to reassert the autonomy of his own imagination as it is a gesture of respect. The primal equivalent is the warrior eating the heart of his enemy to absorb his strength. Will Pomerantz, the director of John Griffin's Godot Has Left the Building, now making its New York City premiere at 45 Below, explains in his program notes that he sees Griffin's piece as a "conversation with Samuel Beckett's play," the revolutionary absurdist work Waiting for Godot. Perhaps. I view it more as an exorcism. Though intended as a sequel—What Would Beckett Do Now?—the conceit feels more like a convenient excuse for Griffin to rewrite a play that clearly preoccupies him. He is taking a bite at Godot's heart.
Godot, version 2.0, is set on the same blasted plain as the original and includes the iconic dead tree, but a few upgrades have been made. The formerly empty landscape is now littered with broken computers, empty coffee cups (Starbucks, natch), old newspapers, discarded kitchen appliances, etc.—these being "the refuse of modern society," according to Griffin's opening stage description. (The picturesque set and lights are by Garin Marschall.)
If the ubiquitous dead computers and scattered Starbucks logos aren't enough to indicate that modern business—electronic-age capitalism, basically—is Griffin's idea of the new alienation, we need only look to the updates he's made to Beckett's human refuse. Vladimir and Estragon, the two tramps from the original, are dead and buried—literally, upstage right (one of Griffin's finer nods to his prequel).
In their place, we have Joe (Edward Griffin), who enters wearing a shirt and tie, and carrying a briefcase. Though barefoot, the fault is absent-mindedness, not poverty. Joe's mercantile mind has been set adrift by the disappearance of everything familiar to him: "I dressed for work, showered and shaved, though not in that particular order, thinking that once I had my coffee I might wake up and realize that I had been dreaming." He's left clinging to a cellphone whose store of numbers is now useless.
His counterpart is Sebastian (Scott David Nogi). Bearded and ragged, and much less perturbed by the surrounding wasteland than Joe, Sebastian is a more direct descendant of Beckett's beloved vagabonds. Even he, however, is wrapped in the remnants of stature: a once fine robe, now tattered, seems to hint at a past in letters, if not academia proper. The impression is reinforced by his pad and pencil—which Nogi wields the way a young Dr. Freud might—and by the fact that he is the first to suggest philosophical games of reason to pass the time.
And, oh, is there time to be passed! The waiting is uploaded from the original in all its lengthy anti-glory. As is the uncertainty on the part of those doing the waiting. A typical exchange:
Joe: How are we to wait if we don't know what we're waiting for? Sebastian: How did the chicken cross the road? Joe: What? Sebastian: It's the same thing. Joe: Oh. [beat] What do we do in the meantime?
The difference between this and a similar conversation in Beckett's play is perhaps Griffin's most cutting comment on the existentialist dilemma as it stands today: Joe and Sebastian don't even have the comfort of a Godot. They are bereft of any single thing on which to concentrate their hopes of salvation, other than the amorphous act of waiting itself.
It's a shame, then, to see the exactness in Griffin's work weakened by our constantly having our attention called to it. The production suffers from over-enunciation. At first, I thought Nogi's and Edward Griffin's energetic articulation was peculiar only to them (indeed, it's not shared by Gabriel Guitierrez as the Artist or Bert Gurin as the Old Man—the revamped Lucky and Pozzo, respectively). But there is little warmth hiding beneath their exceptionally well-aspirated "t's," just as there is little of the messiness of humanity in Griffin's intellectual clarity. As funny as the play often is, it never dips south of the head far enough to touch the despair so present in the original.
Just as Picasso's copies, while informative of the great man's preoccupations, are mostly of middling artistic value, Godot Has Left the Building is excellent as a writing exercise. With luck, Griffin has now managed to free his imagination from Beckett's grip enough to conduct a true conversation, not with the ideas of another playwright but with his own.