Broadway’s ‘Waiting for Godot’ a theatrical treat
Just two old pros having the time of their lives.
That’s my feeling about Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart in the Broadway revival of Samuel Beckett’s existential comedy “Waiting for Godot.”
Co-starring Billy Crudup and Shuler Hensley, “Godot” is paired with Harold Pinter’s “No Man’s Land”: All four actors star in both plays, which alternate from one performance to the next through March 2.
My wife and I caught the show on a snowy December weekend, necessitating a wintry drive, hours on commuter rail and wet slogs through Manhattan holiday crowds.
It was worth every step and every penny.
Beckett’s challenging 1953 play seems to involve little more than a pair of halfwits exchanging inanities while waiting by a tree; their stultifying routine is broken up by two other halfwits who arrive roped to each other – a master and slave even less explicable than the protagonists.
The dialogue is repetitive and often absurd, the plot nonexistent; nearly everyone who encounters “Godot” feels obligated to ask, “But what is it all supposed to MEAN?”
I never had this reaction.
There are indeed plenty of ideas here, but mostly the play is just funny; after all, Beckett was a huge fan of such slapstick greats as Chaplin, Keaton and Laurel and Hardy.
And this production is triumphantly comic, with the audience roaring along even at lines that don’t seem especially amusing on paper.
It’s all in the delivery by the leads, who bring new depth to the work by playing up the differences between their characters.
McKellen’s Estragon is crushed and befuddled, with a deadpan delivery that’s irresistibly comical.
Stewart’s Vladimir is youthful and exuberant, fomenting an optimism that I never saw in this text; his final speech reminds us that, for all its crazy sadness, Beckett’s play offers much hope and beauty too.
The leads’ long friendship and experience keeps peeking slyly out at the audience; behind their characters, McKellen and Stewart sometimes seem to be winking at us, while goading and one-upping each other with unscripted stage business – all of which gives the play bristling energy.
My favorite moment: After making their final curtain call and exiting stage right and left, they slide their derby hats back out from opposite wings; the caps come to rest one up and one down, spot-lit in a winsome tableau.
Crudup is terrific as the abused slave Lucky, who speaks only once in a stream of unpunctuated nonsense that goes on for nearly five minutes; his subsequent collapse was followed by lengthy and appreciative applause.
Hensley is tough to get used to as Lucky’s master; sporting a Southern accent and a dandified costume, he comes across as a brainless fop rather than the selfish brute of the text.
He is, however, better in Act 2 – including a sequence of sustained hilarity with all four actors in a jumbled pile.
In any case, this revival belongs to the leads, showing off some 100 years of combined theatrical experience in a work of breath-taking virtuosity.
It’s a “Godot” worth waiting for.