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Broadway Reviews

No Man's Land and Waiting for Godot

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - November 24, 2013

No Man's Land by Harold Pinter and Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett. Directed by Sean Mathias. Scenic & costume design by Stephen Brimson Lewis. Lighting design by Peter Kaczorowski. Original music & sound design by Rob Milburn & Michael Bodeen. Projection design by Zachary Borovay. Hair & make-up design by Tom Watson. Dialect Consultant Elizabeth Smith. Action Coordinator Christian Kelly-Sordelet. Cast: Billy Crudup, Shuler Hensley, Ian McKellen, Patrick Stewart.
Theatre: Cort Theatre, 138 West 48th Street between Broadway and 6th Avenue
Schedule: No Man's Land and Waiting for Godot play in repertory. Please see Telecharge for schedule.
No Man's Land Tickets: Telecharge
Waiting for Godot Tickets: Telecharge

Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart.
Photo by Joan Marcus

I'm not sure I ever actually bought in to the oft-cited cliché that age is a state of mind until this past week. That's when the magic of the theatre descended on the Cort to reveal two “old” actors who nonetheless seemed younger than everything and everyone else around them. In both Harold Pinter's No Man's Land and especially Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot, which are playing in repertory through March 2 (at the moment, anyway), Ian McKellen (74) and Patrick Stewart (73) obliterate any preconceptions you may have about the ravages of age—while reinforcing through the productions that no one is immune from them.

That these messages can coexist without the merest hint of contradiction is the greatest achievement of both mountings, which have been directed by Sean Mathias and also feature Billy Crudup and Shuler Hensley. This is not to say that both shows are not accomplished or worth seeing; they are. But, the superb McKellen and Stewart notwithstanding, neither quite rises to the status of “must see” that is accorded this fall's other double bill, Shakespeare Globe's Richard III and Twelfth Night. Those defy expectations by yanking you back to first (Elizabethan/Jacobean) principles; Mathias, McKellen, and Stewart instead play to expectations, getting practically everything right but stopping short of otherworldly.

In some respects, the blame for that falls on Pinter and Beckett, who intentionally kept these works grounded. Though both men have acquired (not necessarily unearned) reputations among some for creating dense and intractable theatre, many times of the absurdist variety, at their core their plays address better than most the fears and concerns that consume us every day. And as these plays initially appeared at times of great political or social unrest (Waiting for Godot in 1956, when the Cold War was chilling down and the theatre of nuclear annihilation was heating up, and No Man's Land at the center of the turbulent 1970s), they roil and unsettle yet today with the weight of disastrous inevitability—if of different kinds—that we all still face.

Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellen, Shuler Hensley, and Billy Crudup.
Photo by Joan Marcus

Gravity's downward pull is strongest in No Man's Land, which in this rendering is an unavoidable exploration of death: of the soul, of the mind, and of the body. At first everything seems normal: one poet, Spooner (McKellen), visiting the home of a second, Hirst (Stewart), perfumed with the stench of failure. Hirst has achieved everything Spooner has dreamed of, with a flourishing reputation and the means to hire two servants (Foster and Briggs, respectively played by Crudup and Hensley). Spooner, wearing a rumpled suit and an even more disheveled manner, looks, literally and metaphorically, as though he's on his last legs.

These deceiving appearances dispel as the pair's visit unfolds. Upon returning from a brief nap, Hirst forgets Spooner entirely, and thinks nothing of bragging of his own scandalous romantic conquests one moment and reacting in shock when Spooner does the same a moment later, with the positions (so to speak) reversed. And as his exposure to it increases, Spooner becomes increasingly intoxicated with the air of not just royalty, but lucidity. So much so, in fact, that by the final scene, it's no longer possible to be sure who's in control and who's not, and whether the man you once believed was the object of the other's scorn is, in fact, the caretaker.

Similar themes rest at the heart of Waiting for Godot, with Vladimir (Stewart) and Estragon (McKellen) whiling away their time in the shadow of a wilting (or is it?) willow in anticipation of a man who has trouble showing up on time. But they do encounter a rich man, Pozzo (Hensley), being drawn by an apparent slave named Lucky (Crudup)—who, the next day, when fate (or is it?) unites the four again, is seen to rely on him so heavily that you can't help but wonder who was really the master in the first place.

Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen.
Photo by Joan Marcus

It's bleak, yes, made even more so by the burned-out landscape against which all this occurs. (Stephen Brimson Lewis's set, which recalls the wreckage of an imploded and then toppled building, could easily be the post-apocalyptic remains of the sprawling mansion that is the setting for No Man's Land—perhaps one of the willows visible in the backdrop used there is the same seen here?) But Vlad and Gogo's playfulness, questioning their infirmities and, oh yes, their very existence as they await their... uh, employer? Savior? Take your pick... stops the hopelessness from becoming oppressive, and reminds you that, even amid the greatest diversity, joy need not be a stranger.

Mathias and his actors have assured that it's not, in the Beckett at any rate. This is, without a doubt, the liveliest and most entertaining Waiting for Godot I've yet encountered. Yes, this includes the last Broadway go-around in 2009, starring dual clowns Nathan Lane and Bill Irwin. That production, like most, traded on at least the suggestion of inequality, reinforcing, if faintly, in the central pairing what you see in the peripheral one: that someone is always in charge, whether it's Vlad being dragged down into Gogo's silliness, Gogo surrendering to Vlad's fatalism, or some other equally “comfortable” combination.

McKellen and Stewart, however, are on thoroughly equal footing, thus giving you a more well-rounded picture of their characters and the humanity they represent. It's rare that Gogo is allowed to be a fully tragic figure, but here he is, with McKellen tugging on his loss of innocence like a child does a wagon until the final scene, a downward arcing trajectory that eerily mirrors Hirst's in No Man's Land. And Vlad does not adopt his partner's humor as time trudges on, but possesses it from the beginning, adding glorious new depth to the comedy bits—usually involving the men's bowler hats—that punctuate the inherent darkness and chart the boundaries of a friendship that's as long as life and maybe as long as eternity itself.

Because Mathias has lavished identical attention on (or, depending on the rehearsal process, similarly indulged) Hensley and Crudup, Pozzo and Lucky are nothing less than essential themselves, and telegraph just as readily the symbiotic relationship they share. The brusque Hensley is, if anything, daffier than Crudup's supremely detached Lucky, who's a hollowed-out victim in the first act and a tower of resignation in the second. You see in them the sort of casting usually applied to Godot's leads, something that only further underscores there's less of a gulf between the observers and the observed than we may want to believe—assuming, that is, we even tell the groups apart.

Shuler Hensley, Patrick Stewart, Billy Crudup, and Ian McKellen.
Photo by Joan Marcus

What's most critical is that none of these portrayals registers as grandstanding or a star turn. If McKellen and Stewart shine more brightly, it's only because they're afforded so much more time to ponder what it all means and how the simple implements of life (a carrot, a boot, the leaf on a tree) fit into it all. But when Hensley and Crudup bring the theater to a thick hush in Act II as they stumble about the consequences of their actions, you realize that this is, above all else, an impeccable, airtight ensemble. (Colin Critchley and Aidan Gemme alternate in the tiny role of the boy who appears at the end of each act; I saw Gemme, and he fit right in.) Everyone reflects all aspects of life to paint a picture of what you risk forsaking if you put undue faith in someone you're not sure will ever show up.

No Man's Land needs exactly this kind of alchemy, but doesn't receive it to the same extent. Whereas Godot's pseudo-vaudevillian demands free McKellen and Stewart to explore and invent, here they're more constrained by Pinter's methodical meting out of details. Both are excellent, with their depiction of the gradual shifting in power and focus between Spooner and Hirst satisfyingly epic in its scope. But they break no new ground, and though Crudup's confident swagger energizes Foster, Hensley imbalances things by not fitting snugly within Briggs's commanding skin. You get what's necessary—and little more.

Such is true of both plays, whether considered separately or together. It's difficult to pick out too many other missteps—Lewis's costumes and Peter Kaczorowski's lighting design perfectly match the attitudes of the two shows, as does Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen's sound (if the reverb is just a shade over-echo-y in Godot). But you don't leave the theater either time feeling as though you've had a titanic, once-in-a-lifetime experience. These are top professionals, onstage and off, working at the top of their games without transcending the careers that have preceded them or the plays they're presenting.

Maybe, though, that's for the best. McKellen and Stewart stun as much for what they do as for the fact they're still doing it so well—Stewart, in particular, looks far more nimble strutting through Vlad's dances, double-takes, and hat play than he does in any of extant TV and film appearances from 30 or 40 years ago—but it's their body of accomplishments that, in the final analysis, matters most.

Both No Man's Land and Waiting for Godot unveil complete pictures of men who are fading before the imposing ravages of time and are struggling to maintain the knowledge and sanity that have always defined them. These two actors embody this as almost no one else can, and thrill with how adeptly they're skirting what is, for them as well as their characters, ultimately inevitable. Theatregoers, new or seasoned, who want to witness as well as understand how far one can and should go when time is dwindling should heed Beckett's implicit warning and not wait too long.

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