Review: Waiting for Godot on Broadway starring Sirs Ian McKellan and Patrick Stewart

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Editor's Note: On a recent trip to New York City, Indy theater critic Terry Gibson took in a production of No Man's Land, by Harold Pinter, and Waiting for Godot, by Samuel Beckett, the main characters played by Sirs Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen. For those interested in Broadway from afar — you know who you are — here are his thoughts on Godot. Should you have the means, tickets are still available.

Yes, this is the famous Godot who does not show up to keep his appointments. And it’s the play where nothing happens — twice. Mr. Stewart plays the reasoning Vladimir, Mr. McKellen the hopeful Estragon.

Without noting too many particulars, their predicament can be described as follows: While waiting for Godot, Vladimir and Estragon pass the time on what seem the most improbable of topics, from carrots and boots to biblical absurdities, comically grasping at relevance for their own entertainment (and ours) as if practiced vaudevillian routines.

Semantic stalemates, blind alleys and logical incoherence are Beckett’s order of the day.

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Director Sean Mathias’ set, exchanging Beckett’s “country road and tree” for an industrial scrap heap, seems to have led Vladimir and Estragon to a toxic dead-end or secluded, heavy-labor purgatory. To the audience, vacated wharves and warehouse districts come to mind. Or Baltimore. It’s a place, frankly, you can’t blame Godot for not showing up to.

They will endure at this location as long as their carrots hold out, or Godot arrives. They’re a patient and trusting pair. Whatever terms, conditions or excuses Godot may put forward, he is acquitted in advance of any negligence, false statements or unseemly motives. He could never be the kind of guy to abandon such willing subordinates to the violent whims and loneliness of such a place. Like many responsible for our well-being, be it priest, politician or deity, Godot must have his reasons and it is not our place to doubt or question them, only respond or wait with dignity and in good faith, which Vladimir and Estragon obediently do.

Sound familiar? It is.

What compels and unsettles in Mathias’ production is not Godot’s inability to meet his commitments, but his possible unwillingness or lack of necessity to in the first place. If he does show up, this Godot, or whoever he is, he’s got a heck of a lot of explaining to do. Unfortunately, and catastrophically, he probably hasn’t the faintest idea or concern about what to do or tell his waiting disciples to begin with; and this possibility becomes a probability as his obligations and desires seem even more remote and inscrutable to us all.

Into this setting enter Pozzo and Lucky, and an allegorical sideshow of sorts takes over. They’re an abbreviated version of the world beyond the scrapheap, where people live as either self-indulgent masters or dependent, toiling slaves. They pause for Pozzo to refresh himself, to socialize with Vladimir and Estragon, and enjoy Lucky’s talents for thinking and dancing at Pozzo’s command. Then they leave the scene, only to return in Act II significantly diminished and enfeebled. They have no recollection of their encounter with Vladimir and Estragon the previous day. They deliver the first of Beckett’s unembroidered forebodings of cosmic randomness, and depart again.

Shuler Hensley and Billy Crudup perform these roles ably, if somewhat hurriedly, Mathias not allowing Pozzo (Hensley) the reflective notes and moodiness Beckett supplies. The play is full of explicit directions from Beckett for actors to pause, hesitate or remain silent; Mathias disregards them. Crudup more or less throws away Lucky’s rambling disquisition in a blur of speech and frenzied acrobatics. With it, Beckett’s panoramic satire is tossed aside as well. Both Pozzo/Lucky scenes are handled dismissively, the humor, power and pathos they add diluted by hasty, mistrustful direction.

We are finally given a sketchy outline of Godot in the play’s final moments, from a boy sent to assure and console Vladimir and Estragon of Godot’s arrival and good intentions: he has a white beard and he does nothing. He will not come today, but promises to tomorrow.

We know already how Godot keeps his promises, and by now Vladimir has had his fill of the whole thing. “Habit is a great deadener,” he concedes. It’s a fact of existence that is manifestly to Godot’s advantage and their defeat. Beckett is unerring when situating characters in a gray area between resistance and revolution on the one hand, or dependence and withdrawal on the other. Ultimately it’s a standoff, and no amount of imagination, distraction, or pious devotion can keep from returning us right back where we started in doubt, uncertainty and fear. “I can’t go on like this,” Estragon confesses. “That’s what you think,” Vladimir counters and, as in the beginning, there is “nothing to be done.” Curtain down. End of play.

It is hard, if not impossible, to imagine the play better served than it is by Sirs McKellen and Stewart, who have been performing Godot together for five years. They laugh, cry, embrace, cajole and harass each other with total believability and chemistry. The capacity audiences are thoroughly overtaken and engaged. The ovation at curtain is long, warm and genuinely indebted.

Waiting for Godot, through March 30. $40-$127. Cort Theater, 138 W. 48th St., New York City, twoplaysinrep.com.

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