'Godot' Leaves Them Waiting for Tickets

Times Staff Writer

What happens when you throw together director Mike Nichols, actors Steve Martin, Robin Williams, F. Murray Abraham and Bill Irwin and Samuel Beckett's "Waiting for Godot"?

To quote Variety, you get a show that could do business in the Galapagos Islands.

"I think if we put on a staged production of the telephone book with Robin and Steve and Murray and Bill directed by Mike Nichols, you'd have a pretty good response," said Bernard Gersten, Lincoln Center Theater executive producer. "But if you do what my partner (Lincoln Center director) Gregory (Mosher) calls 'the masterpiece of 20th-Century stage literature,' it's fairly reasonable to expect a great deal of interest."

How much interest? Tickets were gone well in advance of performances, much less reviews. The show's seven-week run at the tiny Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater ends Sunday, and only one-third of Lincoln Center's members could get tickets. Non-members could but wait in line out front for returns.

Nichols' "Godot" had apparently been in gestation for years. Such performers as Dustin Hoffman and John Malkovich participated in a private reading of the play a few years ago at the director's New York apartment, and the current cast got together for a reading last year at Martin's home in Los Angeles.

In their one group interview during rehearsals, cast members simply added to the mystique surrounding the show. Abraham was quoted saying that he felt it would "redefine this play in American terms," while Martin remarked that a failure would be "a memorable one." Williams equated the difficulty of doing the show with such things as having sex in a wind tunnel and water skiing in quicksand.

Production sound operator Clay Steward, cornered in the sound booth during intermission, repeatedly used the word "trust" (as in "the trust that was present"). Director Nichols gave everyone "so much room to try things," said Steward. "We laughed at a million things that aren't in the show. Mike trusted them to try outrageous things in terms of bits and they trusted Mike to really mold the piece. It was wonderful to see superstars working with another superstar and see so little ego get in the way."

But what about the 10,000 Lincoln Center members who were turned away? What about the public at large, totally excluded? Why play a blockbuster in a 291-seat theater?

When David Mamet's "Speed-the-Plow" was scheduled for the Newhouse earlier this year with Joe Mantegna, Ron Silver and Madonna, demand was so keen that the play went directly to Broadway, skipping Lincoln Center altogether. Given the public outcry about tickets for "Godot," why wasn't the same thing done again?

"We anticipated that the interest would be considerable and more than could be accommodated in the 291-seat Newhouse," responded Gersten, confirming that there was talk of opening it in a larger venue. "But it was very clearly a choice of the actors and director to do it at the Newhouse, where it was originally conceived for.

"The only thing we didn't know at that time was how long they would all be available. When we found out, we gritted our teeth. We knew we have only 16,000 tickets (before pulling about 4,000 tickets for press, performers and fund-raisers) but 16,000 tickets was better than not doing the play. . . . Our choice was very clear cut. We did it."

Press and public alike have been critical of that decision, however. Journalists and theater people expressed simultaneous pleasure and guilt at getting tickets--this reporter watched the show from the lighting gallery--and nobody denies complaints from members. The theater ran a supervised drawing of ticket requests, but plenty of people were unhappy. Asked just how unhappy, Gersten responded that "some few have canceled their memberships and a couple hundred have complained."

Is that any way to run a theater?

Gersten said they apologized to people who didn't get tickets, but immediately added that he isn't a bit worried about losing members--"There are three who want to join for every one who quits."

Maybe so. In less than four years, Lincoln Center Theater's new management has rounded up 36,400 members. Each pays an annual $25 fee for the chance to buy $10 tickets to what are merchandised as "good plays at popular prices."

Those plays are being held all over town. At Lincoln Center itself, a revival of Cole Porter's 1934 hit musical "Anything Goes" has been filling the long-dark, 1,050-seat Vivian Beaumont Theater to 99% capacity since October, 1987. And "Godot" is just one of several hits that have filled the also long-dark Newhouse.

Three Broadway theaters handle the overflow, in fact. "Speed-the-Plow" is now in its second cast and still pulling in good audiences at the Royale. "Sarafina!," a musical about apartheid performed by a non-professional company from South Africa, has been playing at the Cort since January. And now in previews at Broadway's Lyceum is a revival of Thornton Wilder's "Our Town" featuring such actors as Spalding Gray and Eric Stoltz.

Next comes Lincoln Center Theater on the road. "Anything Goes" has already begun a multicity tour which will bring Leslie Uggums and Rex Smith to Los Angeles next summer. Tours of both "Speed-the-Plow" and "Sarafina!" are in the works.

According to Gersten, long the associate producer of the New York Shakespeare Festival, box office and touring receipts this fiscal year should reach about $42 million. He estimates production expenses and other overhead at $47 million, saying the board is expected to raise the $5 million needed to balance the budget.

As for "Godot," Abraham argued in a letter to the New York Times on Sunday that the play requires a small theater and that the necessary "exhausting, unrelenting level of concentration," makes a short run imperative. Besides chastising Lincoln Center members with tickets who never showed up and others who "slumbered, awakening just in time to leave during curtain calls," the Academy Award-winning actor suggested people not "vilify" management but rather build a repertory company to bring back this production.

Gersten and company are in fact already talking a reprise, maybe a movie, despite less than universal acclaim from reviewers. Newsweek may have called the show "electrifying," and "a 'Godot' for our time," but the Wall Street Journal called it "surprisingly, demoralizingly average." Referring to "the Beckett masterpiece that is being obliterated," Time remarked that "the supreme existentialist tragedy of the 20th Century has been reduced to a heartwarming revue sketch about the homeless."

Forget reviews. ("So what?" said Gersten.) While assorted film commitments preclude extending this production, Lincoln Center is "exploring the possibility of getting everybody together again, whenever that can be, to put it back in a theater and/or to film it. We passionately hope that we will do it again on the stage and that we will do it as a film. Stay tuned."

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