The Broadway production of “Waiting for Godot” sells itself, which is a relief, since it means I won’t have to sell it.
Its two stars, British actors Sir Patrick Stewart and Sir Ian McKellen, were knighted by the Queen for their distinction on stage and crowned by the public for their roles in such blockbusters as Star Trek (Stewart) and Lord of the Rings (McKellen) and X-Men (both together.)
They are performing the signature work of Nobel Prize winning author Samuel Beckett on the 60th anniversary of its first production (which was in French.) The play, in which two characters, Vladimir and Estragon, nicknamed Didi and Gogo, wait for a third character who (spoiler alert) never shows up, is one of the most familiar and influential theater pieces of the 20th century. If (as one Beckett scholar famously put it) “nothing happens, twice” in the two acts of the play itself, much happened in its aftermath.
The two Sirs, who are famously friends, are reprising the roles that they performed to some acclaim in 2009 in London with the same director, Sean Mathias. Their new supporting players have magnificent reputations. Shuler Hensley portrays a bullying character named Pozzo, Billy Crudup is the ironically named Lucky, whom Pozzo drags around with a rope around his neck. I admired the performances by Crudup (best-known for his many movie roles) in Arcadia and the Coast of Utopia, and I loved Hensley (who won a Tony for Oklahoma!) in The Whale. The director even hired two accomplished Broadway veterans to play the minor character of the boy at alternate performances: Colin Critchley was in Kinky Boots, and Aidan Gemme appeared in Mary Poppins.
Add to this some clever packaging: “Waiting for Godot” is playing with the same cast in repertory at the Cort Theater with Harold Pinter’s “No Man’s Land” (which has a separate admission and which I’ll review separately at a later time.) Add further a vigorous and inspired marketing campaign taking full advantage of the two leads’ celebrity, and their friendship, to try to draw in an audience for two difficult works.
All of this surely makes many people, not just serious theatergoers, eager to attend. To my surprise, then, I found it easier to be impressed with this production of “Waiting for Godot” than to be engaged in it.
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As Didi, Patrick Stewart performs masterfully, in his rich stentorian voice, displaying a tinge of self-mocking grandiosity, as if the Master of Ceremonies at a burlesque show — or more accurately, like the popular Sir Patrick Stewart on Broadway. He makes it clear he is there to entertain us.
But should we feel that Didi is a masterful entertainer?
It is true, as any undergraduate English major knows, Beckett was influenced by vaudeville and film comedies of the silent era, and he put several routines in the play, most memorably Didi and Gogo juggling three hats on their two heads. But in this “Waiting for Godot,” Didi does not seem like a tramp in the Chaplin mode; he feels like Chaplin in the tramp mode. There is only a minimal sense that Didi is down at the heels and trapped. It is as if he is competing with Pozzo as a kind of extroverted ringmaster.
Ian McKellen fares better — which is to say, his Gogo seems genuinely worse off from the moment he emerges from a pile of rubble at the back of Stephen Brimson Lewis’s spare, post-apocalyptic set. This Gogo’s pain is not just existential; it’s in his feet and his legs and his back.
But when these Didi and Gogo engage in their inventive stage business together, it is hard to put aside all those articles we’ve read, and photographs we’ve seen, and segments we’ve watched, of the two Sirs’ famous friendship. Their soft-shoe routine with bowler hats says it in a nutshell: These are two celebrity pals having fun, and it is enjoyable to witness their camaraderie.
For all the talent on display, the new Broadway production seems to offer little of the haunting mystery that suffused previous productions I have seen, most notably the one just four years ago on Broadway, starring the American stage’s answers to Charlie Chaplin, Bill Irwin and Nathan Lane. Both of these performers are themselves clowns – Bill Irwin literally trained as one – but their comic routines during the play in my memory were much more an outgrowth of credible characters. To make sure my memory wasn’t playing tricks – maybe I’ve just tired of this play – I re-watched the “Waiting for Gogot” in the terrific DVD collection “Beckett on Film,” which was directed by Michael Lindsay-Hogg, a version that was originally produced at the Gate Theatre of Dublin. Here, too, Didi and Gogo come off as humbled bums, not retired professional vaudevillians.
Now, I am certainly open to new interpretations of modern classics — enjoying, for example, the current Broadway production of Betrayal directed by Mike Nichols, who deliberately ignores Pinter’s stage directions and pumps more libidinous blood into the normally dessicated British characters than we’ve seen before. I’m even willing to accept (as grating as it is) director Sean Mathias’ decision in this production of “Waiting for Godot” to pronounce the title character GOD-oh, instead of Guh-DOH.
But if the other-wordliness is played down in all but the spot-on set in “Waiting for Godot,” if the performers are committed to filling up the moments with little entertaining shticks and bits that seem to have more to do with their friendship than with the characters’, why are we there watching Waiting at all?
Waiting for Godot
By Samuel Beckett
In repertory with No Man’s Land at the Cort Theater
Directed by Sean Mathias
Sets and costumes by Stephen Brimson Lewis, lighting by Peter Kaczorowski, sound and music by Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen, projections by Zachary Borovay, hair and make-up by Tom Watson
Cast: Ian McKellen, Patrick Stewart, Billy Crudup, Shuler Hensley, Colin Critchley, Aidan Gemme
Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes, including one intermission
Tickets: $40 to $137. Rush tickets (day of performance) $30
Two Plays in Repertory (Waiting for Godot and No Man’s Land) are scheduled to play through Sunday, March 2, 2014