Waiting for Godot / No Man’s Land ***
By: David Sheward
At the curtain call for Sean Mathias’s production of Waiting for Godot, Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen perform a soft-shoe in which the headliners seem to be saying "Isn’t it wonderful that we two stars are here on Broadway, entertaining you lovely people with this cute and funny play?" The same crowd-pandering antics infuse the entire preceding production of Samuel Beckett’s bleak, existentialist classic.
Yes, there is comedy in Godot, and the author envisaged clowns like Laurel and Hardy to play his woebegone tramps Estragon and Vladimir who are eternally waiting for the never-arriving title character.But the harrowing despair they experience is totally missing here. The greatness of Godot comes from its ambiguous view of life as shatteringly sad and screamingly funny. Mathias and company give us plenty of funny, but no sorrow.
There are brief moments when we see the two viewpoints. At the opening of the second act, Stewart as Vladimir executes a brief, desperate vaudeville song and dance, but keeps breaking down as his character struggles to maintain a jolly façade masking his recognition of the futility of existence. Stewart and McKellen deliver impressive vaudevillian turns as the drifters wrestling entertainment from nothing to fill the endless void left by the mysterious Godot, who represents the purpose they are seeking. But their underlying terror of the emptiness symbolized by Stephen Brimson Lewis’s post-apocalyptic set is missing.
The choices made by Shuler Hensley as the pompous traveler, Pozzo, compound the comic emphasis. Hensley gives Pozzo a Foghorn Leghorn-like Southern accent and plays him as broadly as that cartoon rooster. Billy Crudup as Pozzo’s animal-like servant, Lucky, achieves a despairing intensity in a rambling monologue; but without an overall tragic subtext, Godot becomes a divertissement rather than an achingly profound statement of the human condition.
Mathias may have chosen to lighten up this Godot because it’s playing in repertory with another dark tragicomedy featuring the same four-man cast: Harold Pinter’s No Man’s Land, and he and the producers may not have wanted audiences who are seeing both to get too gloomy. Unlike the Beckett, the Pinter piece comes off as a proper balance between hilarity and horror.
Like Vladimir and Estragon, elderly poets Spooner (McKellen) and Hirst (Stewart) are trapped in an existential wasteland where identity and memory are fluid and unreliable. Hirst appears to be a prosperous literary figure attended by two young thuggish handlers, Foster (Crudup) and Briggs (Hensley). Spooner is a down-at-heels has-been who may or may not have known Hirst during their college days at Oxford. As Hirst drowns in an ocean of booze, Spooner strives to hold on to his dignity despite bullying attempts by the two attendants to push him out of the house.
Here the four cast members are equally uproarious and heartbreaking. You can see Hirst’s brilliant mind underneath the alcoholic wreckage in Stewart’s sensitive performance. McKellen is shatteringly pathetic in depicting Spooner’s guarded attempts to get out of this baffling situation intact. He seems like a whipped dog, wincing at every movement of those around him. Crudup and Hensley keep Foster and Briggs from being mere menacing brutes, endowing them with goals and aspirations beyond frightening the two older characters. All render Pinter’s potent dialogue with devastating humor and scary power when appropriate.
Final score: full marks for No Man’s Land, half for Waiting for Godot.
Nov. 24-March 2, 2014. Cort Theatre, 138 W. 48th St., NYC. Schedule varies. No Man’s Land runs 2 hours including intermission. Waiting for Godot runs 2 hours and 20 minutes, including intermission. $40-137. (212) 239-6200. www.telecharge.com
Photos: Joan Marcus