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.
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