‘Nothing happens,” wails Samuel Beckett’s Estragon. “Nobody comes, nobody goes. It’s awful.” Does Estragon have a point? Not much happens in either Beckett’s Waiting for Godot or in Harold Pinter’s No Man’s Land, the two plays now running in repertory at the Cort Theatre. Few people appear. Exits are equally scarce. But are they awful?
Well, under Sean Mathias’s direction, neither piece offers a particularly incisive interpretation of the script. And there are stretches in both when time hangs as heavy as Sisyphus’s boulder. Despite some invigorating line readings, these plays exist less to celebrate the words on the page and more to enable the mutual gratification of actors Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen, whose delight in performance infects the audience like a virus of sheer jubilation.
To see the two execute a jerky, stumbling waltz in Beckett’s play or guzzle limitless whiskey in Pinter’s is to witness two masterful actors in transports of joy. Their affection — for the stage, for each other — gentles Godot‘s harsher hardness. Less happily, it also softens No Man‘s menace.
Each actor plays a version of the same character across both plays, capitalizing on Stewart’s bluff decency and McKellen’s guileful intellect. Stewart’s men are more unruffled, less bedraggled than McKellen’s. They also seem more stable — until each play reveals the void yawning beneath this complacency. (Billy Crudup and Shuler Hensley offer tolerable support, though both seem barred from the McKellen/Stewart boys club.)
In No Man’s Land, Stewart, a wig nestled atop his head like a sleepy arctic fox, plays Hirst, a successful poet who has invited McKellen’s impecunious and unsavory Spooner home for a drink. Round walls encircle Hirst’s study, giving it the look of an arena or prison. It’s unclear what has drawn the two men together. Is it power? Is it sex? Have the two met before?
No Man’s Land is a troubling play about aging and infirmity. It has its lighter moments, like a lavishly dirty speech about cricket and another about floral arrangements. But it can and should produce a profoundly destabilizing effect, as certainties melt away like ice in a scotch glass. Yet the Cort audience greeted even the most frightening lines with titters — a response the actors seem to encourage, much like the Betrayal revival running a few blocks away. The laughter leaches the play of its threat and its power.
More successful is Godot, which McKellen and Stewart previously mounted in London. Never has the relationship between tramps Didi and Gogo seemed so palpably and poignantly loving. This isn’t a queer reading of the script — though McKellen apes a runway model’s waggling walk — but rather one that speaks to an enduring and vital friendship that sustains the men throughout their privations.
Here, the emphasis on comedy reaps better and deeper rewards. The set design posits Didi and Gogo as survivors of a destroyed music hall and the production emphasizes the play’s vaudeville roots with its half-forgotten songs, ungainly dances, and unfinished jokes. Though amusing, these repeated gags come to remind us, chillingly, that if repetition is the source of comedy, it is also a consequence of trauma.
It’s in these moments, when laughter yields to disquiet, that Beckett’s play works best. It’s awful, just like Estragon says. In the best possible way.