Having seen the Cort Theatre’s two productions, Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot” and Harold Pinter’s “No Man’s Land,” I can confidently say that Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen are the best pairing since peanut butter and jelly (better, in fact, as I’ve never been quite a fan of the sandwich). That being said, the humor, skill and allure of these two elderly gents become manifest in the two plays.
It’s not a surprise to see Stewart and McKellen together. The two have famously faced off multiple times as powerful mutant leaders in the “X-Men” films. The two also share an affinity for sci-fi/fantasy, with Stewart famously guiding his crew through space as Capt. Jean-Luc Picard in “Star Trek” and McKellen battling dragons and orcs as Gandalf in “The Lord of the Rings” movies. Nothing if not talented, both have joined up to tackle these two very absurd and very challenging plays.
In “Waiting for Godot,” Stewart and McKellen play two characters—Vladimir and Estragon, respectively—who endlessly wait for the arrival of a man named Godot. Beckett’s play is truly absurdism at its best, with these two characters who seem to have no choice but to wait for this mysterious character who is certain never to arrive. While stuck in this purgatory of their own making, the characters indulge in Beckett’s lively and humorous dialogue.
Vladimir and Estragon differ dramatically in temperament and understanding—the fact of which provides the humor in their exchanges—and yet they are truly close companions. Stewart and McKellen, who are also close friends with very different demeanors and styles of acting, embody these characters perfectly, playing off each other in a way that gives them a true sense of history—and it’s fun to watch. Stewart plays Vladimir, the more perceptive and optimistic of the two, while McKellen grumbles and grouches along as the oblivious and negative Estragon. What is really remarkable to see in Stewart and McKellen as these characters is the physicality they bring. The two enjoy themselves, acting with their whole bodies, from their hilarious facial expressions to the occasional rough-and-tumble slapstick comedy, which reminds of another great duo—Laurel and Hardy. Also joining Stewart and McKellen are Shuler Hensley and Billy Crudup (“Watchmen,” “Almost Famous”), who, respectively, appear as the pompous Pozzo and his slave, Lucky, a strange duo that appears while Vladimir and Estragon are waiting for Godot.
In the similarly absurd “No Man’s Land,” McKellen appears as a failed poet named Spooner who is visiting the house of a successful poet named Hirst (Stewart). Crudup and Hensley also round out the cast of this production as Hirst’s servants. Unfortunately, Pinter’s play, while just as odd and avant-garde, lacks the humor and personality of Beckett’s. Hirst drinks himself into a stupor and mistakes Spooner for an old acquaintance of his, and his workers, Foster (Crudup) and Briggs (Hensley), don’t have much to say, mostly milling about while Hirst and Spooner converse. Indeed, the play is full of people drinking and conversing and not much else, and while the dialogue does have its few—very few—moments of humor, all of which are helped along by the timing, intonation and expressions of Stewart and McKellen, it is nonetheless a head-numbingly dull experience.
No matter the strengths and weakness of the shows, Stewart and McKellen both provide impressive performances and stand in the spotlight. Unfortunately for Crudup and Hensley, that means they are consigned to be the background singers to Stewart’s and McKellen’s front stage divas. That’s no reflection on Crudup’s and Hensley’s skills; they simply do not have the interesting lead roles. Besides, what else can you expect when you share a stage with Magneto and Professor X?
It makes sense aesthetically to have these two plays paired together. Both plays feature men trapped outside of time and normality in a type of purgatory. In “Waiting for Godot,” it is a state of inactivity, an endless wait for a person who may never appear, and in “No Man’s Land,” it is just as the title suggests—a never moving, never changing place. There are no changes of setting in these plays; we remain stuck with the characters in their places of origin. So too can these plays be interpreted in myriad ways, allowing their audiences to read homoeroticism, religion or political critique into “Waiting for Godot” or the psychology or existentialism of “No Man’s Land.” Either way, these plays exist in the realm of the absurd, allowing no clear answers or understanding, instead indulging in their own obscurity and dark humor, taking pleasure in the irrational, the illogical and the nothingness of existence, thereby shunning all traditional modes of theatrical structure—such trifles as conflict, rising action, falling action, climax, etc. Each play relishes the disconnect between its characters and the disconnect between its characters and an outside world that is propelled by time and reason. In short, each play is definitely an experience you should prepare for.
“Waiting for Godot” and “No Man’s Land” are now playing at the Cort Theatre (138 W. 48th St.) through March 2, 2014. For tickets or information, call 212-239-6200 or visit twoplaysinrep.com.