For those who crave more than a single dose of ennui onstage, rejoice: The theater gods have given you two inscrutably postmodern classics this season. They've also been so kind as to throw in a pair of theater gods.
An existential double bill of "No Man's Land" by Harold Pinter and "Waiting for Godot" by Samuel Beckett opened Sunday at the Cort Theatre, eager to play with your head but offering two knights at their peerless best: Sirs Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart.
Each play, performed here with the same four actors under the brilliant direction of Sean Mathias, has bedeviled interpretation for generations. Putting them together in repertory sparks connections, even if the inevitable questions multiply.
It's a mark of how stunning a cast has been assembled that the two supporting actors — Billy Crudup and Shuler Hensley — each have Tony Awards. The plays may not always be your cup of tea — filled with spare language, ambiguity, unreliability and disintegration — but there can be no complaints about the service.
The Pinter work first produced in 1975 centers on Hirst, a well-to-do poet teetering on the edge of booze-accelerated dementia, who has invited a shambling bon vivant Spooner home for a drink — or eight. They banter but don't really connect and it's unclear what their real relationship is. Are they old friends? What is Spooner's goal? Is he a con man?
We are then introduced to Hirst's personal assistants, who instantly rather dislike Spooner, perhaps because he may represent a threat to their comfortable life. The shabby older man is then locked up in a drawing room for the night when the host topples over one too many times and crawls off to bed.
Act 2 begins the next morning, all is forgiven — but a sense of menace lingers — and the two elderly men verbally spar over past sexual conquests. Here again, it's not clear who is playing with whom. Spooner, seeing a chance for a better life, then begs for a job. It comes to nothing. Curtain.
A nightmarish swamp of a play, each man in it seems to spin in their own orbit — stuck in their own no man's land, which we are told, "remains forever icy and silent."
McKellen's Spooner is an overly voluble, romantic lush with a moocher's heart, wearing a worn suit and dirty white canvas shoes. He's a once proud man now deflated into a soft-shoed jester, yet still trying to keep up appearances. He inadvertently cradles a booze bottle like an infant, plays magic tricks and is a pro at insincerity. McKellen is a wonder.
Stewart plays the more reticent Hirst as an unsteady, hard-boiled drunk, surrounded by ghosts. He sits in his leather chair stiffly as if it were a throne, his movements unsure as his mind crumbles. Stewart is marvelous.
If the two leads in "No Man's Land" are destined to never bond, the ones in "Waiting for Godot" will never be apart.
Beckett's absurdist play written shortly after World War II is the better known — two elderly Chaplin-esque fools called Vladimir and Estragon linger near a denuded tree on a bombed-out landscape waiting in vain for a man called Godot. Why is unclear. They amuse each other. They debate whether or not to hang themselves. They eat turnips.
As they wait, they meet another pair of eccentric travelers — Pozzo, a giant squire of a man, who is controlling a baggage-burdened, nearly-silent servant called Lucky by the end of a rope. Hensley uses a strong Dixie drawl as Pozzo, which makes the master-slave allusion even more uncomfortable. Crudup's strange rambling soliloquy is a marvel.
McKellen as Estragon is hysterically dim while Stewart's Vladimir is more of a hand-wringer. Their comfort with each other and the roles — Mathias directed them in a "Godot" in London in 2009 — is a wonder to watch: They laugh and bicker and reconcile like old friends or lovers, each settled into a comforting rhythm. They even have a soft-show shuffle with bowler hats that will make you cheer.
Like the actors, Stephen Brimson Lewis does double duty with both sets and costumes. He creates a cold but elegant semicircle of a stately study for the Pinter play and a post-apocalyptic hell for the Beckett, complete with gaping holes in the wooden slats and crumbling ruins. If you look carefully, Lewis has connected the two by including frayed edges and unfinished elements in the corners of the set for "No Man's Land."
If "No Man's Land" seems to be a meditation on the elusive quality of memory and truth, "Waiting for Godot" has already plowed similar ground. Beckett also explores defective recollections, dreams that torment, the past as a refuge, time as opaque and a play where "nothing happens." No one can leave either play, too, as characters in both complain.
"Let us not waste our time in idle discourse!" Vladimir says to his companion. But idle discourse — intriguing moments, nonetheless, and wonderfully acted — is all that we really have.
Being stuck in limbo has never been so magnetic.
Credit the top-notch tag team of Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart, classically trained actors now famous for playing superpowered “X-Men” enemies.
The stars behind Magneto and Charles Xavier go head-to-head again and light up Broadway in Harold Pinter’s “No Man’s Land” and Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot.”
The vintage purgatory tales, performed in repertory under the direction of Sean Mathias, are unapologetically enigmatic. But amid Pinter’s elliptical storytelling and pregnant pauses and Beckett’s existential mystery, ideas about power, class, memory and mortality get your gray matter buzzing.
“No Man’s Land,” first seen in 1975, unfolds in the den of an English manse. The room has a striking semicircular wall. The main feature: a well-stocked bar that gets lots of traffic.
The place belongs to Hirst (Stewart), a rich author whose success doesn’t keep him from getting lost in foggy forgetfulness. Spooner (McKellen) is a shabby failed writer who’s been invited for a nightcap — or 50 — and may never get out.
The whisky flows, served neat. The conversation, like the wall, is curvy. It’s unclear if Hirst and Spooner really know each other from university. Also uncertain: Did Hirst, as he blithely recalls, bed Spooner’s girl?
McKellen’s silent slow-burn response speaks volumes. He’s got one of the most expressive faces, voices and command of body language on the planet. Stewart gets Hirst’s imperiousness and vulnerability just right.
Lending support as Hirst’s henchmen are Billy Crudup and Shuler Hensley. They’re strangely appealing even as they ramp up the Pinteresque chill and menace.
More familiar but a bit less successful, Mathias’ “Godot” needs a shot of dread. Beckett’s 60-year-old masterwork is too spry and buoyant for its own good here.
The story tracks two days in the lives of Estragon (McKellen) and Vladimir (Stewart), ragbag tramps cooling their heels amid rubble on the side of a road. They’re expecting the ever-elusive titular figure.
“Nothing to be done,” says Estragon. That goes for getting stood up, painful shoes, life and death — or this show’s exaggerated goofy takes on Pozzo (Hensley) and his servile Lucky (Crudup, a dead ringer for Riff Raff from “Rocky Horror”). Attention goes slack as a result.
Fortunately the stars grip tight. Stewart is hearty and game. McKellen, even better, is hilarious and heartbreaking. It’s a fine bromance — Broadway is lucky to have it.
Right now Broadway exists in an alternate reality where bleak existentialism is trending.
But there’s a simple explanation for Pinter’s “No Man’s Land” and Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot” thriving amid a sea of light musical fare: They both star Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart — better known as Gandalf and Captain Jean-Luc Picard, respectively.
When you’ve done Middle Earth and “Star Trek,” you can get away with anything.
Unlike many marquee names who wash up on the Great White Way, these two know their way around a stage. They have what seems like 328 years of combined experience, with dozens of highfalutin’ notches in their actorly belts. These guys’ screen credits may be luring crowds, but it’s their craft that earns the applause.
Like Mark Rylance alternating between “Richard III” and “Twelfth Night,” McKellen and Stewart do their shows in rep, and both are directed by Sean Mathias. If you have to pick one, “No Man’s Land” is the way to go.
That 1975 play helped popularize the term “Pinteresque” as shorthand for something that’s enigmatic, dry, vaguely threatening and vaguely funny.
Spooner (McKellen) is a down-on-his-luck poet invited to the fancy home of Hirst (Stewart), a rich literary figure. Hirst is helped on by a couple of manservants played by local stalwarts Shuler Hensley and Billy Crudup, ably representing the American acting corps.
Maybe Spooner and Hirst know each other, maybe they don’t. Maybe the things they talk about happened, and maybe they didn’t. Even an innocuous line like “Let us change the subject. For the last time” leads to mind games.
It’s all very inscrutable and cool, but the show’s mysteriously compelling. This has a lot to do with the easy rapport of the leads, who are besties in real life — McKellen even became a Universal Life Church minister to officiate at Stewart’s wedding.
Still, this doesn’t prevent McKellen from wiping the floor with him. At 74, he’s lighter on his feet than men a third his age, with a highly entertaining mix of looseness and precision, and a stunningly mobile face.
Though the two main roles in 1953’s “Godot” are equal, McKellen comes out on top again as Estragon to Stewart’s Vladimir. The pair are bedraggled vaudevillian tramps in bowler hats, endlessly hankering for a visit from the mysterious visitor of the title.
For some reason, this “Godot” has been set in what looks like a crumbling theater instead of the usual desolate landscape. But the real reason the show’s less efficient than the other one is the imbalance between the leads — once again, McKellen’s dominance turns Stewart into a straight man.
The supporting cast is just as lopsided: Hensley’s bellowing Pozzo is one note, but Crudup is touching as Pozzo’s slave, Lucky.
Yet every time you start thinking you’re watching two homeless men argue, the ever-expressive McKellen pulls out another trick: Just look at the way he gnaws on a carrot, or his desperate soft-shoe shuffle. Who wouldn’t want the privilege of watching him in action?
My, how they do go on, these two. In the absurdly enjoyable revivals of Harold Pinter’s “No Man’s Land” and Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot,” which opened in repertory on Sunday at the Cort Theater, Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart make a most persuasive case for conversation as both the liveliest and loneliest of arts.
Hearing two such lions of the British stage (who also happen to be knights of the realm and franchise action-film stars) swapping dialogue so dexterously, you may find yourself wishing that you could sound just like them. Well, the good and the bad news is that you more or less do.
Granted, we average citizens of this planet are seldom if ever as epigrammatic as the blokes portrayed by Mr. McKellen and Mr. Stewart — a couple of swells, on the one hand, and a couple of bums, on the other (though which hand is which is open to debate). But listen closely — and you will — and you’ll become aware of the blaring S.O.S. that weaves its way through everything they say.
They are speaking, like you and me, to fill a void, to pass the hours, to assert their identities, to pretend that they’re truly connected to someone, anyone else. Making noise is what they do to keep out the silence that’s waiting to step in and devour them. Of course, they like to hear themselves talk. It’s how they make sure they’re alive.
Brrrr, sounds bleak, doesn’t it? But as directed by Sean Mathias, with sturdy supporting performances by Billy Crudup and Shuler Hensley, these productions find the pure entertainment value in existential emptiness. I have never before heard American audiences respond to any production of Pinter or Beckett with such warm and embracing laughter.
This isn’t just a matter of theatergoers chuckling to show that they’re smart and cultured and had damn well better be having a good time after forking out all that money for tickets. (If you want to hear that kind of laughter, check out the revival of Pinter’s “Betrayal” a few blocks away.)
No, watching these tales of aging British poets and woeful French vagabonds, the audience is truly in on the joke of how hollow even our most elaborate conversational rituals are. This is largely thanks to two stately showboats who know how to spin arcane philosophical head scratching into remarkably accessible high comedy.
Now, if you’ll allow me (and it will only sting a second), I’m going to offer one major caveat regarding two improbably pleasurable shows. Mr. Mathias’s productions seldom give full value to the deep mortal chill of these plays, of the fraught dangers in Pinter’s universe or the aching pathos within Beckett’s. Ideally, you should leave “No Man’s Land” and “Godot” with a shiver as well as a smile.
These productions mostly stay, comfortably and tantalizingly, on the surface. But in doing so, they also bring out the beguiling polish and shimmer in Pinter and Beckett’s language. These shows allow us to appreciate the great paradox in some of the best dialogue ever written, which uses eloquence to plumb the futility of speech.
Only the sourest theatergoers will begrudge themselves the joy that Mr. McKellen and Mr. Stewart derive and impart from embodying this contradiction. These shows are an irresistible celebration of two actors’ love affairs with their scripts. Not that the physical side of things has been neglected.
Mr. McKellen, in particular, not only talks the talk but also walks the walk in both shows, with a beautifully pained limp for “Godot,” and for “Land,” a sprightly heel-to-toe gait that gives new life to the notion of pussyfooting. He and Mr. Stewart prove equally adroit in executing what might be called tragic pratfalls.
In “Land,” first seen in 1975 with Ralph Richardson and John Gielgud in a National Theater production in London, Mr. McKellen plays Spooner, a shabby, self-styled artiste who finds himself in the baronial digs of Hirst (Mr. Stewart), an eminent man of letters. If the play has a narrative arc, it would be that of Spooner’s trying to ingratiate himself into the employment of his newfound, wealthy friend.
The tension rises when Hirst’s thuggish and possessive manservants, Foster and Briggs (Mr. Crudup and Mr. Hensley, both very good), show up and suss out the intruder in their midst. But “Land” is basically a couple of white guys (and very British guys, that’s important) sitting around talking. And drinking — a lot. And swapping memories that may or may not be accurate, and that they may or may not have in common.
Noël Coward, of all people, was one of the first of the London theater’s old guard to appreciate Pinter’s verbal finesse. And in this production, you hear sharp and resonant echoes of Coward and even Oscar Wilde, as well as of T. S. Eliot.
This staging makes the clearest case I know for “Land” as Pinter’s appropriation and devastation of the classic drawing-room comedy. And I will forever cherish the memory of Mr. McKellen’s nimble Spooner and Mr. Stewart’s increasingly paralytic Hirst doing their best to one-up each other, in authoritatively delivered nonsense.
Stephen Brimson Lewis’s set for “Land,” which brings to mind an expensively upholstered coffin, is layered over his more expansive set for “Godot.” You see the decaying architectural structures used for Beckett’s play peeking out at the sides. This is fitting, since Pinter is the child of Beckett, and “Godot,” first staged in 1953 and arguably the most important play of the past 100 years, is the primal template for the more socially specific “Land.”
In this rendering, “Godot” comes across as a strikingly sentimental work, with Mr. McKellen and Mr. Stewart shifting from the barbed thrust-and-parry of Pinter’s ambiguous adversaries to a tone of cozier interdependence. As the haplessly cerebral Vladimir (Mr. Stewart) and the more instinctual Estragon (Mr. McKellen), two tramps in a wasteland of eternal sameness, they are perhaps on occasion a little too adorable in their cycle of squabbles and reconciliations.
Yet they skillfully and poignantly elicit how their characters’ relationship is an elemental portrait of a marriage. And the first quarter of the second act, in which Estragon and Vladimir consider the strengths and weaknesses of staying together versus splitting up, is as loving a study in the evils and virtues of codependence as I’ve seen.
Mr. Hensley (looking like Humpty Dumpty and sounding like a Southern-fried Simon Legree) is the grotesque tyrant Pozzo and Mr. Crudup portrays his simpleton slave. These actors don’t fit into Beckett’s blasted landscape as naturally as they did into Pinter’s land-mined drawing room. But they honorably and energetically serve their diversionary function.
Mind you, it could be argued that everything that is said and done in both “Land” and “Godot” is only diversionary, a way of both marking time and ignoring its inevitable toll. “That wasn’t such a bad little canter,” Estragon says to Vladimir, after they have engaged in several styles of conversation and confrontation, all done with vaudevillian panache.
“Yes,” answers Vladimir, “but now we’ll have to find something else.” Of course, they do just that. What choice do they have, any more than we do? Fortunately, when the interpreters are Mr. McKellen and Mr. Stewart, that something else is something else again.
Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart, lifelong staples of the British theater, have become famous -- rock-star famous -- as characters in Hollywood blockbusters. In a lovely turn of karmic payback, the men are extending their pop-culture magnetism to the altogether unlikely but dazzling masters of 20th century drama Samuel Beckett and Harold Pinter.
And what a treat this is. Both actors, neither one immune to the lure of excess showmanship, are terrific -- stylish, disciplined, strikingly different -- in Sean Mathias' repertory stagings of Beckett's familiar 1953 masterwork, "Waiting for Godot," and Pinter's more rare, chilling and opaque "No Man's Land."
McKellen has a flashier physical role than does Stewart in Pinter's 1975 power play about Hirst, a successful alcoholic writer (Stewart, almost unrecognizable with his shaved head covered with a blond toupee). He has brought a seedy gadfly poet (McKellen) named Spooner home to his handsome, sparsely furnished house with the well-stocked liquor cabinet. They may have known each other at Oxford, or maybe not. In fact, the poet -- if, indeed, he is a poet -- may, or may not, have had an affair with the host's wife, taking "simply that portion of herself all women keep in reserve for a rainy day."
Unlike the more conventional "Betrayal" starring Daniel Craig and Rachel Weisz, this is the Pinter of malevolent non sequiturs and the silken menace of unstated violence. People say nothing or speak in long, florid, luscious riffs as they scratch beneath the aging surface of civilized men.
Stewart's Hirst alternates impressively between befuddlement and arrogance, while McKellen's Spooner is a foxy fellow slowly realizing that he is a prisoner of the class he's trying to crash. Billy Crudup and Shuler Hensley -- essential supporting players in both works -- are deliciously, maliciously dry as dangerous underlings jockeying for position.
I prefer my "Godot" to be more of a lean intellectual vaudeville than this antic production, but little matter. This one, with more song-and-dance clowning, is also true to tradition of these existential tramps waiting for a Godot who never comes. More puzzling is the set (sets and costumes for both plays are by the versatile Stephen Brimson Lewis). Instead of Beckett's demands for just a tree and a country road, there are broken building facades that suggest crumbling urban ruin.
Still, McKellen makes a desperately, poignantly crotchety Estragon, who gets beaten daily by strangers for no reason. Stewart makes a strong contrast as an unusually hearty, dapper and pathetically optimistic Vladimir, the philosopher in urinary distress. Hensley and, especially, Crudup seemed more natural in Pinter than in the outrageous physical comedy of master Pozzo (with a Texas accent) and slave Lucky.
The men, gloriously, fill the boredom and the suffering with amusing routines and desperate thoughts -- you know, just like life. As Estragon says, "Maybe this will give us the impression we exist." With Pinter as well as Beckett, they certainly do.
No two characters in drama have led more famously fruitless lives than Samuel Beckett's Estragon and Vladimir. Yet it would be hard to imagine a pair of actors having, or offering, a grander time than the men now starring on Broadway in Waiting for Godot (***½ out of four stars).
As played by Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart, Beckett's iconic hobos suggest two old vaudevillians, well past their prime but not incapable of recapturing that old magic. Even Estragon, the wearier and more patently beaten-down of the two — played by McKellen — can get a certain sparkle in his eye.
That's not to say the sense of futility and despair in this Godot isn't palpable. As this staging, vigorously directed by Sean Mathias, emphasizes, the comic and tragic elements of this absurdist classic are interwoven.
So it's fitting the play is being performed in repertory with Beckett-admirer Harold Pinter's No Man's Land (***½), in which existential misery is surveyed with a sly wit that can pierce the funny bone as much as the soul.
The productions, which opened Sunday at the Cort Theatre, also feature supple performances by Billy Crudup and Shuler Hensley. In Godot, Crudup is cast as the long-suffering Lucky and Hensley as the tyrannical Pozzo, whose relationship can suggest a savage variation on Estragon and Vladimir's tortured co-dependence.
Illustrating the latter, the leading men are as haunting as they are amusing. McKellen's withered but still-mischievous Estragon watches as his companion's ludicrous faith is repeatedly tested. By the time the other duo makes its second and final appearance — the flamboyant bravado of Hensley's Pozzo now broken — the spryness of Stewart's Vladimir is fading to a sort of desperate defiance, inspiring a moving tenderness in his partner.
The bond between the central figures in No Man's Land is more elusive. We meet Hirst, apparently a successful poet and alcoholic, and Spooner, apparently a loquacious mooch, in Hirst's London home — as stark in its elegance, via Stephen Brimson Lewis' scenic design, as his Godot set is in its dilapidation.
Hirst, played here by a marvelously deadpan Stewart, listens and drinks while Spooner — McKellen, exquisite in his poised buffoonery — babbles on. The host and his guest met in a bar, we're informed, but in Act Two, which takes place the next morning, it's implied they may be old friends. Or, as their increasingly curious recollections and revelations (especially Spooner's) can suggest, we could be witnessing a game, or a scam, or some blurring of reality and fantasy or delusion.
With Crudup and Hensley as Hirst's similarly mysterious minders, this Land captures the mesmerizing, inextricable brutality and humor of Pinter's dialogue far more potently than the starry but stiff Betrayal running a block away.
Both Land and Godot, in fact, prove that the most challenging and unsettling material can make for accessible, even buoyant, entertainment.
Trying to figure out a Pinter play is like pounding nails in your skull. Trying to figure out a Beckett play is like using a drill. But holding forth in a death-defying repertory bill of Harold Pinter’s “No Man’s Land” and Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot,” master thespians Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart make it all seem crystal clear under the incisive direction of Sean Mathias. Auds are free to make what they will of the mysterious characters who figure in these two ambiguous masterpieces of existential angst, but these actors know exactly who these men are — old friends.
The title alone of “No Man’s Land” is enough to give you chills, referring as it does to some sepulchral place or state of existence “which never moves, which never changes, which never grows older, but which remains forever icy and silent.” The hint of that blasted heath in “Waiting for Godot” is uncanny. Brrrrr!
This limbo land is where Spooner, the seedy and possibly starving poet played by McKellen, finds himself when Hirst, the famous and far more successful literary figure played by Stewart, picks him up on Hampstead Heath and invites him to his elegant home for a nightcap. Awed by his posh surroundings, Spooner feels compelled to sing for his supper (for access to a well-stocked liquor cabinet, actually) by showing his obsequious regard for his host — perchance to discover a way to mooch off him.
“You are kindness itself, now and in England and in Hampstead and for all eternity,” gushes this down-and-out guest. Getting little reaction from the monosyllabic Hirst, who has drunk himself stiff, Spooner is emboldened to make himself at home by topping off his own glass and delivering a freestyle monologue about his life, his career, and his thoughts on everything from the cruising scene on Hampstead Heath to the “repellent lick-spittling herd of literati” who refuse to let this threadbare poet into their tent.
It’s a joy to watch McKellen circumspectly guide Spooner to the proper state of inebriation at which he can feel comfortable in the house of a stranger he may (or may not) have known in the past. So comfy that he declares them to be literary comrades in arms. (“We share something.”) So comfy that he takes the liberty of challenging his august host on a narrative point. (“It is my duty to tell you you have failed to convince.”)
Fun Fact: John Gielgud and Ralph Richardson chose to play against type in the benchmark 1975 production of “No Man’s Land,” with the patrician Sir John taking on the shambolic Spooner and the salty, earthy Sir Ralph tackling the austere Hirst — and winning the Tony for best actor that year.
In this production, Stewart and McKellen play the roles they seem born to play. Stewart uses his noble profile and plummy voice to lend gravitas to Hirst, who springs to life in the second act to engage McKellen’s puckishly charming Spooner in a duel of wits. Hirst leads off with scandalous anecdotes about the wild youth they supposedly shared. Spooner parries with defensive cunning, topping Hirst’s narrative whenever he can, but never challenging the assertion of their past friendship.
Funny as it plays, this exchange can be read in less comic ways: as the fantasy of an old man’s wandering mind. Or the sadly transitory bonding between two strangers. Or the painful resurgence of unhappy memories. This is a Pinter play, so every line, even — or especially — the ones that remain unspoken, are open to interpretation.
McKellen and Stewart raise the intriguing possibility that Spooner and Hirst might, indeed, have been friends at one time. Or if they never were, they are close to becoming friends by the end of the play. Spooner certainly responds like a pal by coming to Hirst’s defense when his two live-in attendants — a sinister “secretary” played with chilling menace by Billy Crudup and Shuler Hensley’s brute of a bodyguard — appear to be bullying him. If life for sad old men means living in limbo, better to live it with a kind friend.
In “Waiting for Godot,” the friendship between Vladimir (Stewart) and Estragon (McKellen) is the only thing that’s keeping Western civilization from sinking back into the primordial mud. That’s no loose metaphor, either, because scenic designer Stephen Brimson Lewis has set Beckett’s barren wasteland amid the crumbling ruins of an advanced culture. The boulder that Estragon sits on to remove his boots is no ordinary rock, but the capital of a broken Corinthian column — which is a bit like coming across a half-buried Statue of Liberty in a futuristic sci-fi movie.
Again under the classically oriented direction of Mathias, the two thespians play the parts they were meant to play. Stewart’s rather elegant Vladimir is the serious clown, the straight man who keeps track of things. Things like where they are and what they’re doing. To his logical mind, they are where they are supposed to be and what they’re doing is waiting for Godot. Whenever the absurdity of this aimless existence gets to him (“It’s too much for one man!”), he reasons his way back to optimism. “On the other hand, what’s the good of losing heart now, that’s what I say. We should have thought of it a million years ago.”
If Stewart’s sensible Vladimir is the rational adult in this existential vaudeville act, McKellen’s endearingly goofy Estragon is the irrational child who obeys his natural instincts and acts spontaneously. He’s Jerry Lewis, Bud Abbott, and Tommy Smothers. He’s Kramer. It’s a wonderfully impish performance of the eternally innocent child, sweetly guileless in a hostile universe where the weak are routinely victimized by the strong. As living proof of that, Beckett brings on the sadistic Pozzo, played with frightening intensity by Hensley, and his monstrous treatment of his helpless slave, Lucky (poor Crudup).
The only thing that keeps Vladimir and Estragon from slipping into the same state of moral anarchy is their mutually supportive (and mutually dependent) friendship. Like the poets in “No Man’s Land,” these cosmic clowns may be two sides of the same coin of humanity, which is what people generally want in a friend, anyway — the other side of themselves.
That’s certainly the way that McKellen and Stewart play them here, as partners in the comedy routine we call life. They go through the rituals of existence by drawing on ancient comedy routines from pantomime, the music hall, and of course, the circus. (Their hat-passing routine is terrific.) And although these friends sometimes contemplate adding suicide to their repertoire, they really survive from one day to the next because they make each other laugh. ”I tried laughing alone,” Hirst says in “No Man’s Land.” And how was that? ”Pathetic.”