By Toby Zinman
For the Inquirer
Scratch a great Shakespearean actor and find a great vaudevillian. Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart, two giants of the stage (and screen) are having a conspicuously and irresistibly fine time in Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. Only imagine: the play that mystified sophisticated audiences in London and Paris sixty years ago, has become a hot ticket on Broadway.
And what a play it is, earning its iconic status night after night, year after year, as profound and funny as ever. Or moreso. In the immortal words of the two geezers who speak for the play--and for us all: “Where do you go from here?” and the reply is, “On.”
Vladimir (Stewart) and Estragon (McKellen), aka Didi and Gogo,wait in the middle of nowhere day after day for somebody named Godot to show up. He doesn’t. Each day he sends a boy to say he cannot come but will surely come tomorrow. While waiting, they do what we do: talk, sleep, dream, dance, sing, exercise, pray, complain, reminisce, forget, remember, quarrel, make up. More than anything, in this interpretation by director Sean Mathias, Godot is a portrait of a friendship, which, given the real-life friendship between the two actors (McKellen recently officiated at Stewart’s wedding), is palpable and endearing.
In the midst of one of their endless days, they meet two people: Pozzo (the astonishing Shuler Hensley, using a booming, hog-calling Texas accent) and his slave, Lucky (Billy Crudup, graceful and jittery and twitchy and frail). In Act Two, they reappear: time passes, stuff happens. (As one witty critic once said of the play’s two acts, “Nothing happens. Twice.)
The “country road” specified by Beckett as the play’s locale, has here been replaced, perhaps for (dare I say it?) realism’s sake, by an urban ruin, but it hardly matters: nowhere is nowhere. This production seems to like nowhere rather more than Beckett would want it to; their dire situation seems more bearable than it does in my reading of the play.
McKellen, using a Beckettian Irish accent, is brilliant and hilarious and deeply moving; Stewart seems to be a bit self-conscious in this horsing-around mode, grinning at his own loss of dignity, less intellectual than “my” Didi. Both their voices, even in meditative whispers, can be heard with the perfect precision of great classical actors.
In true Shakespearean tradition, the show ends with a jig, although this time it’s a vaudevillian routine. For a play about “hope deferred” making the “heart sick,” it’s an awful lot of fun.
At the Cort Theater, 138 West 48th Street, Manhattan; 212-239-6200, telecharge.com. Through March 2.