THEATER REVIEW: Waiting for Godot
Cort Theater, New York, March 23, 2014
We’ve grown accustomed to Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen’s Twitter feeds. They’ve romped around New York together, sat for Santa, eaten first slices of pizza. In many ways, their work onstage in the current New York revival of Waiting for Godot feels like their next daily adventure. Sure, their characters (Estragon and Vladimir) are rougher around the edges—dusty vagabonds who wait for a fate that never comes. But Sirs Stewart and McKellen imbue these weary men with the spark of their off-stage closeness. There’s an intimacy between them, be it friendship or even love, that makes Samuel Beckett’s absurdist quasi-comedy undeniably moving.
Beckett wrote Godot for clowns and fools; Bert Lahr was one of the original stars. But it helps to have two more dramatic actors who can turn on the charm. I saw Godot in 2009 with Nathan Lane and Bill Irwin. While they were a strong pair, I prefer the added melancholy of casting older. Death is creeping in. McKellen’s Estragon, in particular, is a vividly senile character, his mind addled and his appearance past self-maintenance. “What are we waiting for?” he asks all evening, only to be reminded of that specter Godot. Stewart plays Vladimir with greater agility, still with his wits. But for every dance step, his urinary troubles cause him pain; age gets us all.
Director Sean Mathias sets these men in what could be a crumbling theater, dilapidated boxes and an exposed back wall (designed by Stephen Brimson Lewis). For what are Vladimir and Estragon but actors, waiting for their next role? Beckett’s writing is full of vaudevillian touches—a bowler hat routine, a song and dance—that distract us from the end nearing. Mathias’s revival becomes more sinister with the entrance of the slave Lucky and his master, Pozzo, who bears a molasses drawl and a Bozo the Clown fright wig. I found Pozzo (played by Shuler Hensley) jarring; he avoids a lot of the humor in favor of being grotesque. Billy Crudup, on the other hand, nails Lucky’s fevered incoherent monologue. He’s an innocent in a land that’s dying around him.
But don’t think too much about death! Even when the lights dim, all four men enchant us at the curtain call, dancing on from the wings. Godot feels like it’s in the best of hands, with McKellen and Stewart knowing they’re here to entertain us. Their joy in performing together magnifies the show, but so does McKellen’s admission that this is probably his last Broadway outing. We might not see them together again. For a show that pivots on waiting, there’s something final about this Godot.