Taking on Beckett and Pinter classics in Broadway repertory
That famed Marx Brothers’s routine from their 1929 film, The Cocoanuts, even sounds like some of playwright Samuel Beckett’s serio-comic dialogue:
But with neither Groucho nor Chico currently available to play Didi and Gogo nor the mute Harpo to play the mute and unlucky Lucky, how about a couple of aging Knights instead? Thanks to their on-going on-screen “X-Men” duets as Magneto and Professor X, the Sirs Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellan are deep in a much heralded off-stage bromance. And so, to scratch their mutual itch to get back on stage together, they’re now doing “…Godot,” even doing an hilarious version of the Marx Bros’ very own hat juggling trick from “Duck Soup,” just one of myriad Vaudeville, Music Hall and Burlesque turns interpolated into this new production.
Credit must also go to Sean Mathias, who first directed this West End ‘laugh riot’ Godot in the same 2009 season as the aforementioned Roundabout version. Both productions also share the new and currently preferred pronunciation of GOD-oh instead of God-OH. Now this pair of Knights has trumped all previous casts in this critic’s long memory, especially in the humor department, including the ill-fated 1988 Lincoln Center production with the real but miscast comedians, Steve Martin and Robin Williams as the doomed duo, along with Oscar winner F. Murray Abraham (Pozzo) and TONY winner Bill Irwin luminous as Lucky. (For more about other versions including The Muppets, check out “The Godot Variations” online.)
Shambling over Stephen Brimson’s war-torn sets, these post-modern Knights could be in any bombed out locale from Britain in the 40’s to Chechnya in the ‘90’s to anywhere in the near 21st century future, but they still sport those iconic, worn-out, uncomfortable boots and cheeky bowlers. They have survived whatever cataclysm has occurred – we don’t need to know exactly – because we, in Post 9-11 America, are finally fully prepared for Beckett’s “…laugh sensation of two continents,” as we never could have been in the post-war America of 1956, when it originally premiered.
Godot’s plot in a sentence: It’s the end of the world, so Beckett appropriates the first half of Shakespeares’ Richard II speech, “Let us sit upon the ground and tell sad stories…,” while director Mathias finishes it up with “…a little song, a little dance, a little seltzer down your pants,” courtesy of Chuckles the Clown.
“What do we do now that we are happy?” asks Gogo and while Beckett never replied “We do Pinter,” the Knights and their stalwart director have decided to do exactly that. After all, what’s better than two septuagenarian Knights doing eight shows a week on Broadway? Have them perform in repertory, of course. And Harold Pinter’s four character No Man’s Land, with its enigmatic title (a possible reference to the WW1 term used to describe land “…left unoccupied due to fear or uncertainty, perhaps filled with barbed wire and/or land mines”) turns out to be a perfect fit for that double bill.
Simply add lots of scotch and soda, two aging poets, the successful Hirst (Stewart) and the failure Spooner (McKellan) plus two quasi-thugs, Foster (Crudup) and Briggs (Hensley), then stir for a perfect Pinter drawing room fracas. Between plays, the four actors bathe, coif and suit up 70’s style for this Pinter companion piece that posits…well, it doesn’t really posit much in the way of plot, it’s what we’ve come to know as Pinteresque, lots of dialogue and pauses with a sense of imminent danger, among people who may or may not be what they seem.
Pinter was indeed a modern day descendant of Becket even if none of Pinter’s characters actually live in garbage cans. Recurring themes such as the hardships of growing old and the dangers of strangers instead of one’s family and friends, appear in practically all of early Pinter.
While less showy than Godot, No Man’s Land provides a jolly jaunt for the audience and the actors alike, but if you’re seeking “bang for your buck,” definitely stick with Godot. And always remember that once within the realms of Beckett and Pinter, one always finds oneself in the Marx Brothers “deep water.”
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