Review: Ambiguity Abounds in WAITING FOR GODOT & NO MAN'S LAND
It isn't often that, when paired with another play, Samuel Beckett's Waiting For Godot is considered the more accessible piece, but Harold Pinter's obtuse little attraction, No Man's Land (with its characters named for cricket players) has inspired its share of "What does it mean?" inquiries.
The two make a fine match for a new Broadway repertory production, not just because they both conveniently consist of two major male roles and two supporting male roles, but because both plays mix comedy (absurdist humor from Beckett and erudite banter from Pinter) and ambiguous drama to suggest contrasting views of characters caught in a type of purgatory.
Director Sean Mathias and his talented quartet of actors (they are billed above the title alphabetically as Billy Crudup, Shuler Hensley, Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart) do lovely service to both of them. No big bangs and whistles at the Cort Theatre; just a solidly acted pair of straightforward mountings that, despite all the attention paid to the two more famously named stage artists, serve the playwrights very well.
For those new to the piece, the entire plot of Waiting For Godot is summarized in the title. McKellen's scraggy, world-weary Estragon climbs up from the rubble of set and costume designer Stephen Brimson Lewis' unspecified locale (raked stage, brick wall, a pair of building facades and Beckett's specified leafless tree) to meet with Stewart's limber and lively Vladimir.
While waiting, for an unspecified reason, for the title character, they discuss religion, dreams and frequent urination, hurl insults at one another, pull off a vaudevillian hat trick and partake in a bit of song and dance.
They're interrupted once in each act by the rowdy and pompous Pozzo (Hensley in a wild Texas drawl) and his much-abused servant, Lucky (Crudup, with quiet pathos until he launches into a stream-of-consciousness monologue). They also receive news of Godot from a young messenger (Colin Critchley and Aidan Gemme alternating in the role).
Of the two productions, this is certainly the one geared most toward charming the customers and the boys all seem to be having a grand time. Tensions rise in No Man's Land, Pinter's 1975 work that's lesser-known on these shores.
The odd situation, which mixes fact and fiction and questions if it even matters which is which, casts the primary pair as literary colleagues turned rivals. Having met earlier in the evening at a London pub, the well-to-do Hirst (smugly elegant Stewart) has invited the disheveled but crafty Spooner (a chatty McKellen) to his home for several nightcaps.
A poet who has seen better days, Spooner gets by on charming others with his wit, but as the drinks flow freer and the conversation gets more personal, he may be in over his head.
Observing the verbal cockfight are Hirst's manservant, Briggs (quietly intimidating Hensley) and his assistant, Foster (an icy Crudup). Homosexual ambiguity is bouncing off the walls; quite shocking for boulevard audiences in the mid-70s.
Though the production comes to town as a star-vehicle event attracting fans of Stewart's and McKellen's blockbuster film and television work, those in the know recognize them as impeccable stage artists (Crudup and Hensley ain't no slouches in that respect either) who display intelligent craft and commitment in contrasting pieces. There is certainly no ambiguity about that.