Review Roundup: ‘No Man’s Land’ and ‘Waiting for Godot’

The two-play repertory of Harold Pinter’s No Man’s Land and Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot opened at the Cort Theatre on Nov. 24. For both plays, X-Men co-stars Patrick Stewart (Star Trek: The Next Generations) and Ian McKellen (Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit) headline with Tony winners Billy Crudup (The Coast of Utopia), and Shuler Hensley (Oklahoma!, Young Frankenstein) in support. Sean Mathias (Indiscrections, The Dance of Death, Breakfast at Tiffany’s) directs both shows.

No Man’s Land concerns two elderly writers who may or may not share a past. Hirst is a famous literary figure who invites the impoverished poet Spooner to his lavish home for a drink. As the evening progresses, Spooner claims to have known Hirst at Oxford University and two mysterious servants, Foster and Briggs, enter the picture. Spooner attempts to insinuate himself into Hirst’s good graces as Foster and Briggs appear to manipulate their boss’s actions. In Godot, Vladimir and Estragon, a pair of tramps, are lost in a wasteland as they wait for a mysterious employer who never appears. They argue, trade carrots, encounter the pompous traveler Pozzo and his animal-like servant Lucky, and pass the time as they attempt to find meaning in their seemingly meaningless existence.

Were the critics bowled over by this double act? Here are excerpts from the major reviewers.

Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen star in Waiting for Godot (Photo: Joan Marcus)

Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen star in Waiting for Godot (Photo: Joan Marcus)

Ben Brantley, The New York Times
“In the absurdly enjoyable revivals of Harold Pinter’s No Man’s Land and Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, which opened in repertory on Sunday at the Cort Theatre, Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart make a most persuasive case for conversation as both the liveliest and loneliest of arts….[A]s directed by Sean Mathias, with sturdy supporting performances by Billy Crudup and Shuler Hensley, these productions find the pure entertainment value in existential emptiness. I have never before heard American audiences respond to any production of Pinter or Beckett with such warm and embracing laughter.”

Joe Dziemianowicz, New York Daily News
“Being stuck in limbo has never been so magnetic. Credit the top-notch tag team of Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart, classically trained actors now famous for playing superpowered X-Men enemies. The stars behind Magneto and Charles Xavier go head-to-head again and light up Broadway in Harold Pinter’s No Man’s Land and Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot.

Elisabeth Vincentelli, New York Post
“Unlike many marquee names who wash up on the Great White Way, these two know their way around a stage. They have what seems like 328 years of combined experience, with dozens of highfalutin’ notches in their actorly belts. These guys’ screen credits may be luring crowds, but it’s their craft that earns the applause. Like Mark Rylance alternating between Richard III and Twelfth Night, McKellen and Stewart do their shows in rep, and both are directed by Sean Mathias. If you have to pick one, No Man’s Land is the way to go.”

Mark Kennedy, Associated Press
“Each play, performed here with the same four actors under the brilliant direction of Sean Mathias, has bedeviled interpretation for generations. Putting them together in repertory sparks connections, even if the inevitable questions multiply. It’s a mark of how stunning a cast has been assembled that the two supporting actors—Billy Crudup and Shuler Hensley—each have Tony Awards. The plays may not always be your cup of tea—filled with spare language, ambiguity, unreliability and disintegration—but there can be no complaints about the service.”

Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart on stage in 'No Man's Land' (Photo: Joan Marcus)

Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart on stage in ‘No Man’s Land’ (Photo: Joan Marcus)

David Cote, Time Out New York
“Harold Pinter’s 1974 masterpiece No Man’s Land is back on Broadway (last seen here in 1994) in a glowing revival starring Sirs Ian McKellen as Spooner and Patrick Stewart as Hirst. The acting giants are very much cast to type (Stewart: hearty; McKellen: weedy), and they’re a perfect pair….We all know that Samuel Beckett was influenced by silent-film greats such as Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin when he conceived his cosmic tragicomedy Waiting for Godot. Less talked about is his debt to English music hall. By the curtain-call kick line of tramps Vladimir (Stewart) and Estragon (McKellen), the connection has been made explicit. This is a self-reflexively stagey Godot: The action takes place inside a theater that has been abandoned (or bombed); trapdoors, spotlights and crumbling proscenium arches serve this tale of life’s cruel, chronic meaninglessness.”

David Rooney, The Hollywood Reporter
“The gravitas, penetrating intelligence and mercurial wit they bring to their performances in these contrasting yet strangely complementary works was to be expected given the two actors’ breadth of experience. But it’s the sense of rueful, wounded humanity that distinguishes them in plays that both hinge on co-dependent relationships, whether chilled by the icy breath of menace in Pinter’s 1975 drama, or cloaked in the more clownish despair of Beckett’s 1953 classic.”

Linda Winer, Newsday
“[W]hat a treat this is. Both actors, neither one immune to the lure of excess showmanship, are terrific—stylish, disciplined, strikingly different—in Sean Mathias’ repertory stagings of Beckett’s familiar 1953 masterwork, Waiting for Godot, and Pinter’s more rare, chilling and opaque No Man’s Land.”

Thom Geier, Entertainment Weekly
“In both plays, McKellen and Stewart deliver a master class in acting that seems to echo Beckett and Pinter’s underlying theme: the struggle of men against the challenge and inevitability of death. By their age-defying enthusiasm, the seventysomething stars manage the tricky feat of making challenging material engaging, fun, and ultimately life-affirming.”

Matt Windman, AM New York
“While it was a marvelous idea to pair up Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen as the quintessential tramps Vladimir and Estragon in Waiting for Godot, this revival of Beckett’s existentialist classic is weighed down by Sean Mathias’ problematic direction and the decision to perform it in repertory with Harold Pinter’s 1975 drama No Man’s Land.”

Steve Suskin, Huffington Post
“McKellen and Stewart shine in this tandem No Man’s Land/Godot, with McKellen being especially moving in both plays. One might consider that he has the showier roles, but even so, the man can grab the audience by merely tugging on his pant leg — and he does just that. For viewers who don’t necessarily have the time and funds for both plays during this busy show-going season, start with the Pinter.”