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Lucky Breaks

By: Eric Grode
Date: Jun 29, 2009


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By Eric Grode

"They give birth astride of a grave, the light gleams an instant, then it's night once more." - Pozzo, "Waiting for Godot"

The wall of John Glover's dressing room at Studio 54, where he is currently playing the haggard but oddly endearing Lucky in Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot, features two photographs of his father. In the larger one, an infant John sits on John Glover Sr.'s bare shoulders; the boy steadies himself by grabbing his father's hair with both hands. The smaller photo, which John took two weeks before his father's death, shows the 88-year-old man in a hospital gown; the hair is almost gone, and his eyes are closed.

This second image of his father offers a glimpse into how Glover approached the taxing role of Lucky. For much of Samuel Beckett's 1953 masterpiece, Lucky is confined to a series of quick actions as he obeys orders from his harsh owner, Pozzo (John Goodman), alternating with a bone-weary stasis punctuated by little more than the sound of his tortured breathing and the sight of drool streaming from his open mouth. After a brief desultory dance at Pozzo's command, however, Lucky finally breaks his silence with one of Beckett's more formidable walls of text, including a sentence of more than 700 words, before he is wrestled to the ground by the dumbfounded men at the play's center, Vladimir (Bill Irwin) and Estragon (Nathan Lane). 

Glover, 64, spent a month parsing and practicing Lucky's disjointed, allusive, seemingly impenetrable speech before rehearsals began, and he spoke with the director, Anthony Page, on the phone about it. Nevertheless, "I was in the dark when I started rehearsal," Glover says. "I had no idea what was going to come out - I didn't see any way in."

Some components resolved themselves fairly quickly. The lithe Glover constrained himself by wearing 5-pound ankle weights - something that costume designer Jane Greenwood ultimately incorporated into Lucky's costume. And a sort of professional envy developed between Lucky and Estragon, the more impulsive of the two protagonists. "Estragon would like to have my job," Glover says. "That's an aspect that's very playable for an actor." Ultimately, though, his own family experiences gave him the entry point that had eluded him.

"My father had a kind of dementia that was similar to this," says Glover, who has become active with the Alzheimer's Association. "He lost the ability to communicate his thoughts. So, in one way, I was trying to tell my dad's story through the speech. Once I realized that, I sort of befriended the speech."

Still, it takes more than an emotional connection when it comes to something that thorny. "Patti Lupone told me that she asked Arthur [director Arthur Laurents] to devote some time to 'Rose's Turn' every day during Gypsy rehearsals," Glover says of her character's iconic solo song, "and I asked Anthony the same thing. I came in and worked on the monologue from 11 to 12, and then the rest of the guys came in."

 The approach paid off: Glover, who won a Tony Award in 1995 for his dual roles in Love! Valour! Compassion!, was nominated again for Godot - a role he got only after the original Lucky, David Strathairn, had to bow out citing medical concerns. Glover often juggles stage work with the far more lucrative realm of television: He spent all seven hiatuses during his time on the long-running Smallville doing plays in New York and regionally. In this case, holding out for a TV gig paid off. "I'd been offered some other plays, which I turned down because of [the TV drama] Brothers and Sisters- there had been talk of a romantic arc with Ron Rifkin." (Glover and Rifkin had previously played lovers in off-Broadway's The Paris Letter, by Brothers and Sisters creator Jon Robin Baitz.) "And so, when that didn't happen and David Strathairn had to drop out, I was suddenly free."

 Fittingly for an actor who routinely took a break from playing Lex Luthor's father by taking on the likes of Athol Fugard and Edward Albee, Glover will soon leave Beckett's blighted no-man's-land for the roisterous Manhattan duplex of George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber's The Royal Family. Manhattan Theatre Club is opening its next season with the 1927 backstage comedy, and Glover will join a cast of stage powerhouses that includes Jan Maxwell, Tony Roberts and, as his sister, Rosemary Harris. "It's all based very loosely on the Barrymores, and I play Herbert Dean, the brother who's not quite as successful." An unsuccessful actor? Sounds like another stretch for Glover.

Learn more about Waiting for Godot

Eric Grode was head theater critic of the New York Sun from 2005 to 2008. He is vice president of the New York Drama Critics Circle and has also written for the New York Times, New York magazine and the Village Voice.
Eric Grode