Saturday, December 7, 2013

No Man's Land and Waiting For Godot at the Cort Theatre

Who knew that existentialism could be so much fun?

To call a veteran actor a master thespian can come off as a bit of a cliche. Yet, that term applies to Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart. The two have known each other for decades and their long friendship deepens their performances. Particularly as Samuel Beckett's tramps, Estragon and Vladimir in Waiting for Godot (God-oh)  Day after day the two meet on a desolate landscape entertaining themselves and the audience with discussions both sacred and mundane, always waiting. Beckett's script makes reference to Didi and Gogo knowing each other for 50 years. In this production, you genuinely believe they have known each other and supported each other through the terrors of the nights they spend alone into the interminable days they spend together. Their philosophical sparring brings forth the humor of the script. Yet, the hopelessness of their situation is ever present. Given strong support by Shuler Hensley as the bombastic slave master, Pozzo and Billy Crudup as the heavily burdened Lucky, Waiting for Godot is a triumphant production.

The playwrights Harold Pinter and Samuel Beckett can be challenging for the average audience. In particular Pinter's No Man's Land, written in 1974 and first produced in 1975 is a difficult script. In brief it takes place in the home of Hirst, a alcoholic upper-class man of letters where he is served by two men, Foster and Briggs, who are very protective of their status as his secretary and bodyguard. One night Hirst meets Spooner, a failed poet, at a local pub and invites him home.  Over much alcohol the two men engage in lengthy reminiscences about their past discussing their university days and their acquaintances and relationships.  The question becomes are they really friends from long ago? Or is Spooner feeding Hirst the conversation he seems to desperately craves?

No Man's Land ultimately is the less satisfactory production. That is due to Pinter's abrupt endings to both acts. The relationships between the four men are quite engaging, particularly Stewart as the bon vivant Hirst, mired in an increasing alcoholic haze and McKellen's Spooner, all threadbare in appearance, yet spry in words and movement.  Here, Mr. Hensley and Mr. Crudup are more menacing, always seeming to wish to maintain their control of Hirst and thus seeing Spooner as a threat to their cozy existence.   The set, designed by Stephen Brimson Lewis, is deceptive in its spaciousness, revealing itself as the evening wears on as cold and prisonlike.

For a crowd pleasing and easily satisfying foray into existentialist drama see Waiting for Godot. For a more challenging and thoughtful experience see No Man's Land. For the opportunity to see two esteemed master thespians at the top of their craft, do not miss rare opportunity to see either play or both this Broadway season.

No Man's Land by Harold Pinter and Waiting For Godot by Samuel Beckett are being performed in repertory at the Cort Theatre on Broadway through March 2, 2014.  For ticktets and other performance information please visit