That's not to say the sense of futility and despair in this Godot isn't palpable. As this staging, vigorously directed by Sean Mathias, emphasizes, the comic and tragic elements of this absurdist classic are interwoven.
WAITING FOR GODOT Broadway Reviews
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I prefer my "Godot" to be more of a lean intellectual vaudeville than this antic production, but little matter. This one, with more song-and-dance clowning, is also true to tradition of these existential tramps waiting for a Godot who never comes. More puzzling is the set (sets and costumes for both plays are by the versatile Stephen Brimson Lewis). Instead of Beckett's demands for just a tree and a country road, there are broken building facades that suggest crumbling urban ruin.
In both plays, McKellen and Stewart deliver a master class in acting that seems to echo Beckett and Pinter's underlying theme: the struggle of men against the challenge and inevitability of death. By their age-defying enthusiasm, the seventysomething stars manage the tricky feat of making challenging material engaging, fun, and ultimately life-affirming. The ease of their companionship is almost infectious, elevating these productions to the sublime.
“Waiting for Godot,” to my taste the more palatable of the two plays, has the famous wanderers Vladimir (Stewart) and Estragon (McKellen) idling by a barren tree, expecting to meet up with Mr. Godot, who they hope will improve their lot. Beckett’s play is an examination of time, memory and identity, set, we’re told, over consecutive days.
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.
These productions mostly stay, comfortably and tantalizingly, on the surface. But in doing so, they also bring out the beguiling polish and shimmer in Pinter and Beckett’s language. These shows allow us to appreciate the great paradox in some of the best dialogue ever written, which uses eloquence to plumb the futility of speech.
And then, while you may be out having dinner, all the names change. Spooner and Hirst become Godot’s Estragon and Vladimir, the forlorn tramps condemned to an eternity of frustrated hope. Briggs becomes Pozzo, the fatuous landowner on whose property they trespass, and Foster becomes Lucky, his quasi-equine luggage-toting slave. The handsome sets by Stephen Brimson Lewis make a transition as well; when the curtain rises this time, Hirst’s home has lifted away to reveal, in Beckett’s woeful description of the setting, “A country road. A tree.” All that remains of Pinter’s poshness is the ruined classical frame at the proscenium, calling to mind an ancient theater.
‘Waiting for Godot’ & ‘No Man’s Land’ Theater Review: Ian McKellen & Patrick Stewart Lighten Up on the Angst
Being a showoff works well for “Godot,” especially as envisioned by director Sean Mathias, who has set the play in the ruins of an old theater, where a big tree has sprung up through the boards and could provide the perfect exit if only these two old hams from vaudeville or the music hall or two-reelers could find enough strong rope to hang themselves. McKellen and Stewart are a very carefully orchestration study in contrasts here. As Estragon, Stewart is staccato and all sharp edges, his dome almost polished to a point on top. McKellen, on the other hand, seems to be sprouting hair everywhere to the point of looking furry, if not fuzzy.
The main roles in Godot – another pared-down play famous for the fact that nothing happens – in many ways are imperfect mirror images of Hirst and Spooner, wearing bowler hats that make them appear like a vagabond Laurel and Hardy. Stewart’s Vladimir, affectionately known as Didi, is the restless thinker, blindly clinging to the belief that the enigmatic title figure will show up for a designated appointment beneath a dead tree. McKellen’s wheezing Estragon, or Gogo, is more enfeebled, both physically and mentally. His memory is as broken as his feet, requiring Didi every day to remind him of the previous day’s events. As irascible and indulgent with each other as any old married couple, they often wonder if they wouldn’t have been better off alone. The one thing they consistently agree on is that hanging themselves from the tree would be a fine idea, if only they had some rope.
McKellen as Estragon is hysterically dim while Stewart's Vladimir is more of a hand-wringer. Their comfort with each other and the roles — Mathias directed them in a "Godot" in London in 2009 — is a wonder to watch: They laugh and bicker and reconcile like old friends or lovers, each settled into a comforting rhythm. They even have a soft-show shuffle with bowler hats that will make you cheer.
“Nothing to be done,” says Estragon. That goes for getting stood up, painful shoes, life and death — or this show’s exaggerated goofy takes on Pozzo (Hensley) and his servile Lucky (Crudup, a dead ringer for Riff Raff from “Rocky Horror”). Attention goes slack as a result. Fortunately the stars grip tight. Stewart is hearty and game. McKellen, even better, is hilarious and heartbreaking. It’s a fine bromance — Broadway is lucky to have it.
For some reason, this “Godot” has been set in what looks like a crumbling theater instead of the usual desolate landscape. But the real reason the show’s less efficient than the other one is the imbalance between the leads — once again, McKellen’s dominance turns Stewart into a straight man.
n the classic "Godot," the scruffy hobos Vladimir (Stewart) and Estragon (McKellen) loiter by the roadside, waiting for Mr. Godot, who never comes. They wait and wait, bicker, make up, pass the time with vaudeville routines, like passing bowler hats back and forth; and offhandedly contemplate hanging themselves from the lone tree on the bleak landscape. Each day goes on the same as every other day.
If I took more pleasure in the Sirs’ co-stars, the Americans Shuler Hensley and especially Billy Crudup, it is not, I hope, out of chauvinism, but because the latter duo appear still to be finding their way: confidence has not hardened their responses. This was true not only in the Godot, which the Americans did not do in London, but also in the Pinter. As Foster, the supposed amanuensis of Hirst, Crudup conveyed a precise blend of menace and mirth.
McKellen makes a strong impression visually as a bearded, homeless-looking, hopelessly sleepy Estragon, and Stewart is full of spark as the rationalizing Vladimir. However, their recitation of the text is off-balance, with Mc-Kellen offering little expressivity and too many lines played up for laughs.