Broadwayites who braved the first below-freezing weather of the season found cold comfort at the Cort where a couple of Arctic air-blasts-from-the-past bowed anew: Harold Pinter's 1975 No Man's Land and Samuel Beckett's 1953 Waiting for Godot.
Both dark, comical, intellectual dances were well-staffed by director Sean Mathias with a pair of British knights (Sir Ian McKellen and Sir Patrick Stewart) in roles written for knights a generation back (Sir John Gielgud and Sir Ralph Richardson).
By dizzyingly quick turns, all four of these actors scampered across the sort of bleak, oblique, constantly changing mindscapes that only Beckett and Pinter could create. No Man's Land is set in a sparely appointed London apartment, but its emotional temperature is that of a frozen purgatory "which never moves, which never changes, which never grows older, which remains forever, icy and silent." The same could be said for Godot's lifelong waiting room, which Beckett only identified as "a country road," utterly undistinguished save for a tree that grows leaves during intermission.
In No Man's Land, Hirst (Stewart) has dragged home his pub pickup, Spooner (McKellen), a reprobate with illusions of elan who comes with a full tank of helium and hopes of charming his new best friend into free room and board for life. That plan is shot down by two young men, either Hirst's handlers or henchmen — Foster (Crudup) and Briggs (Hensley) — who are not about to be replaced by the old sot. Waiting for Godot covers two days in the static, empty lives of Estragon (McKellen) and Vladimir (Stewart), a couple of existential vaudeville clowns on the road of life, waiting for ships that never come in. The only relief from their monotony is the comings-and-goings of a two-man parade — the pompous Pozzo (Hensley) and his luckless slave, Lucky (Crudup), who is mute except for a long gibberish monolog.
People were actually ice-skating in Bryant Park when the first-nighters filed into the Bryant Park Grill for the after-party. Press activity was, for the first time, away from the party-crunch and conducted two flights up on the canvass-covered rooftop.
Mathias recognized the potent, poignant chemistry McKellen and Stewart exuded when he put them through their Godot paces in London, but it was not an easy thing to import. He had to sweeten the deal with another play they could twirl in rep.
[flipbook] "No Man's Land was my idea," he said, "and it was a pragmatic idea. Patrick was not keen to come here and do Godot, and Ian was not keen about doing the Pinter. It was my partner who said to me, 'If Patrick wants to do one show and Ian wants to do the other, play them off against each other and do both with each other.' I said, 'That's not such a crazy idea at all, and you can use the same four actors in both plays.'"
To his mind, the plays seem as ideally matched as the two leading men. "Of course, I think that the Pinter is so much about manner and mannerism — although it's much more than that. And it goes much deeper than that — and the Godot is so much about savagery and our animal side — and, of course, it's much more than that. It's also very, very delicate, so it makes a very interesting balance between the two, I think."
Sir Ian is frankly hard-pressed to say which role he likes better. "There's always a moment when I'm doing Spooner and I say to myself, 'Aren't I the luckiest actor in the world to be allowed to say these lines?' And then I think, 'Oh, and this evening, I'm going to get to meet Estragon in Waiting for Godot.' And the other way around, too. I'm always thinking that I'm looking forward to playing the other part."
Having two plays rolling around in your head is better, and more energizing, that just having one weighing heavily there for eight performances a week.
"I don't know if I have the energies to go on doing what I'm now doing," he confessed. "Theatre's a young man's game. I'm not announcing this is a farewell tour or anything like that, but, if anyone were to say, 'When are you going to be back?' I'd say, "I don't know if I ever will be back." I think it would be nice to live at home in London for a bit."
If he doesn't come back, there will be something he'll miss mightily, he admitted. "I think Broadway audiences have remained pretty constant over the years. They've not got hysterical. They've not reduced in numbers, as far as I can see. The age span is considerable, and the enthusiasm is palpable in the audience and on stage. "The same is not true in London, but there are other advantages when you're doing a play at the National Theatre. That is an audience that's special, unique. They've been going to that theatre for years, and they've seen a great number of plays, some of them very well done. It's that sort of audience — but Broadway, I have to say, is the friendliest, most discerning audience in the world. They give you a chance here."
These two old pros play beautifully together, as you might imagine. It's an emotional balancing act for them in both plays. Stewart spends most of his time in No Man's Land in a profound stupor — so dead-drunk you think he has actually expired in his chair — and it is McKellen lightly prancing about, being ever-so-gregarious to his host. In Godot, McKellen lumbers about like a depressed clown, and Stewart is a one-man welcome wagon, insisting he put on a happy face and get back into the game.
"I feel for Hirst," the actor said sadly. "He's a man — actually younger than me — who is in great distress. His life has collapsed inwards. He's senile and a serious drunk."
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Happily, they have each other to pull themselves out of life's little sinkholes. "It's a delight to work with Ian," he said. "He's truthful, witty, creative — and he shares the stage. That may be the best part of it. We are a team. We worked together as a team." The B-team is not as felicitously cast, coming off best as ominous Cockney thugs in No Man's Land. Hensley liked the sinister stillness of his character. "Brigg is a man of action, not so many words," he explained, "and, when you're playing him, it feels like he's just observing, observing, observing — and then there's a big burst of action."
The way his Briggs fits together with Crudup's Foster depends on the performance you see. "Our backstory changes every time we do it, which is amazing about that play. There is so much depth to the relationship of Briggs and Foster — but what that is, can really change in the moment, and it's still relevant. We love that about it."
Pozzo has been startlingly Dixied-up by Hensley, a Georgia boy. "They said they didn't want any preconceived accents. But the more we read it, the more it made sense to me in terms of the rehearsal process to try to feel it like I would from where I'm from. It just worked out. The language fits beautifully, and it was unique.
"I just love the absurdity of that character, but, underneath that, there is real feeling. People have very specific feelings about this show. There's a humanity underneath it and even Pozzo — a character people hate — has something endearing going on."
As Lucky, Pozzo's luggage-toting whipping boy, Crudup has the longest stretch to make. "The creative aspect of — first, trying to understand a character like Lucky and finding a way to physicalize him and manifest that — has been pretty uphill," he understated. "The living experience that he has is not one that comes easily. "I've never played that before — or Foster, either. I've never played a tough Cockney before. Foster experiences life in a really cynical way. He's obviously had the kind of life that never allowed him to have a lot of faith in many people. That's a very, very dark and uncomfortable place to go to, and I enjoyed going there quite a bit."
|Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN|
His convincing low-Cockney accent is the miracle-working of Elizabeth Smith. "She's a dialect coach at Juilliard. She helped me through Elephant Man and two Arcadias."
Nathan Lane, Broadway's third and most recent (2009) Estragon, was there on opening night to check it out, as were director Evan Cabnet; costumer William Ivey Long; a couple of actor/playwrights (John Cameron Mitchell and Bruce Norris); Suzanne Bertish of the upcoming Machinal; Michael Braun, who is bringing Benedict to provinces via the Shakespeare Mobile Unit's current production of Much Ado About Nothing; Alan Cumming, who starts rehearsing his second coming of Cabaret in January; and Welsh hottie Luke Evans (Bard the Bowman of "The Hobbit" series).
Romeo and Juliet was represented, uptown (Orlando Bloom) and downtown (John Rothman), and both leading men in Mathias' Breakfast at Tiffany's were there — the one from London (Joseph Cross) and the one on Broadway (Corey Michael Smith). as were Mickey Sumner and Liv Tyler, actress-offsprings of Sting and Steven Tyler.
Janet McTeer, who has a Tony (A Doll's House) and a Tony nomination (Mary Stuart), admitted she's mulling a third visit to Broadway, but, for now, she'll show up just for old friends. "Ian, Sean and I did a play a long time ago in London — Uncle Vanya at the National. I'm fond of those boys, and I have a huge respect for them."
|photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN|
Patti Smith, the "Godmother of Punk" and not your typical first-nighter, said the lure for her was "this collection of extraordinary gentlemen, not the least of whom is Samuel Beckett." The short answer: "Patrick invited me." Stewart was also the attraction for Kyle MacLachlan, the actor whose new career as a winemaker had been spotlighted earlier in the day on "CBS Sunday Morning." Right now, he's in town shooting J.J. Abrams' "Believe" series which will air in March on NBC.
Lighting designer Peter Kaczorowski marks his 50th and 51st shows on Broadway with this double bill and, by now, knows his way around Beckettville. "This is my third Godot. I did the one with Nathan and Bill [Irwin] four years ago, and the other one I did was at Berkley Rep, which is where we tried out this No Man's Land."
Brad Oscar said he's finishing up the run of Big Fish at the Neil Simon, "a show I'm very proud of," Dec. 29. In February, he's in a show at the York called Malpractice Makes Perfect, for which Sheldon Harnick has done the book, music and lyrics.
One Tony nomination — and he comes out for the classics: "Yes, and they have to be revivals," Richard Kind shot back. Next? "I did a pilot, and I'm praying it's picked up." Fighting post-nasal drip, Edward Hibbert sniffled out he was "freezing and going back to 54 Below the last two Tuesdays in January, then to Florida to do some Noel Coward for Barry Day and on to The Sound of Music at Lyric Opera in Chicago."
John Patrick Shanley was planning to be up and at 'em the next day to begin rehearsals with Debra Messing, Brian O'Byrne and director Doug Hughes for Outside Mullingar, his latest which will open Jan. 23, 2014, at MTC's Friedman Theatre. "Mullingar is a town in Central Ireland, and it's about the old country and my family there."
Shanley's play about modern-day piracy tried out at Vassar and evidently sank, but he loved the Tom Hanks movie based on the same incident, "Captain Phillips."