Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow: Vladimir and Estragon Are Waiting Once Again—but This Time With the Star Power of Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart

Ruben Santiago-Hudson, as August Wilson, is a fine raconteur, and the staging’s the thing in a new 'Macbeth'

Ian McKellen, left, and Patrick Stewart in 'No Man’s Land.' (Photo by Joan Marcus)

Ian McKellen, left, and Patrick Stewart in ‘No Man’s Land.’ (Photo by Joan Marcus)

Let’s get this part out of the way: Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart are very good, every bit as good as you hope. These accomplished vets—two Brits, two legends, two knights—make a fine pair of performers, and it’s a joy to watch them work together, polished, sure, and at ease in their roles, playing off each other and clearly enjoying themselves. The two stars have found their way to Midtown to act in two plays about two pairs of lost men: Spooner and Hirst in Harold Pinter’s No Man’s Land and Estragon and Vladimir in Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. The talent on stage also includes two supporting players who would be stars in any other show, Billy Crudup and Shuler Hensley. It’s a feast of acting at the Cort Theatre, where No Man’s Land and Godot opened in repertory Sunday night, both directed by Sean Mathias.

Whether you find the event to be a feast of theatergoing, on the other hand, will depend on your fondness for the two plays—on your tolerance for an elapsed four-and-a-half hours of bleak, circular, existential angst, on your tolerance for sitting through two plays that are purportedly about everything while superficially about nothing.

No Man’s Land is the greater success, its unclear relationships and mysterious identities, its alcoholism and regret, its thoroughgoing air of Pinterian menace, combining to form an affecting if inscrutable portrait of men looking warily toward death and hazily back at life. Waiting for Godot, on the other hand, that alleged masterpiece of waiting and despair, of two men seemingly stuck in time, doomed to repeat their empty, dystopian days for might well be an eternity, left me as despairingly bored as its characters. This was, I should acknowledge, my first Godot; I do not await another.

No Man’s Land, which premiered in 1975 and is set around that time, opens with the elegant Hirst (Mr. Stewart) and the down-on-his-heels Spooner (Mr. McKellen) having a drink in Hirst’s spacious, coffered North London drawing room. (The dignified set and carefully class-conscious costumes are by Stephen Brimson Lewis.) It seems the two met on a walk through Hampstead Heath, and Hirst has invited Spooner back for a drink, or maybe Spooner has invited himself. Hirst is a successful literary type; Spooner is a struggling poet. As they talk, it seems possible that they’ve long known each other, or knew each other long ago, or maybe are just pretending to. Messrs. Crudup and Hensley play Foster and Briggs, Hirst’s wary retainers, some combination of servants, secretaries and bodyguards, both a bit thuggish, one also claiming to be a poet.

There is a lot of talk, a lot of whiskey, a lot of sharp dialogue and anguished speeches, and what eventually becomes clear is that the two older men, whether they do or do not know each other, are alternate versions of the same person—charming, chatty litterateurs of the same vintage, one who found success and its obligations, one who did not but has freedom. Each is, in different ways, desperate—for some money, for some status, for life. The conversation is vibrant but depressed, cracklingly downcast. It ends with the characters as they began, having another drink. There is no change, only inevitability.

So, too, is the lesson—a lesson?—of Waiting for Godot, Beckett’s deathless study of two strange men waiting by a tree for a visitor who never arrives. For Estragon (Mr. McKellen) and Vladimir (Mr. Stewart), abandoned in some wasteland, with only a few root vegetables for sustenance, standing by barren tree, the impossibility of change is the only reality of their existence. It’s Groundhog Day with no hope for release and no wooing of Andie MacDowell along the way, just the same empty nothingness, repeated indefinitely.

There’s a lot of vaudeville in the play—not just the iconic bowler hats but also small shticky comic bits and song-and-dance moments—and Messrs. McKellen and Stewart gamely, delightfully gambol their way through them. Mr. Hensley, as the wealthy buffoon Pozzo, and Mr. Crudup, as his imbecilic slave, Lucky, have great fun with their roles, too, clowning their way through bravura turns.

But, still, the thing just goes on and on and on, without going anywhere. This is of course the point, or part of it: No one can remember what day it is, what time it is, what happened yesterday or is likely to happen tomorrow. Godot is always reported to be coming the very next day. (As you no doubt read in the Times, it has been decided that his name is pronounced GOD-oh rather than ga-DOH, which only makes matters more tedious.) This also makes for a seemingly endless evening. And more than once, Estragon and Vladimir, looking for ways to pass the time, consider hanging themselves, but they find Estragon’s belt is insufficient to the task. I should have brought some rope.

August Wilson’s signature accomplishment was his American Century Cycle, 10 plays tracking the African-American experience through the decades of the 20th century. (Two of them won the Pulitzer Prize.) In How I Learned What I Learned, his autobiographical one-man show now having its New York debut, Wilson, who was born in 1945 and died in 2005, deftly uses the well-turned stories of his own life as an impressionistic window into the experience of being a black man in the late-20th-century United States.

Ruben Santiago-Hudson, who has performed in Wilson plays and directed some, too, portrays his friend in the fine and funny Signature Theatre production that opened Sunday night. It’s a character he wears like a second skin, and he has great fun with Wilson’s orotund, poet’s mix of street slang and preacher’s cadences. As directed by Todd Kreidler, another frequent Wilson collaborator, Mr. Santiago-Hudson is a friendly but steely raconteur, bouncing around the small, rough-hewn stage. (As the run progresses, one hopes, he’ll grow surer in his lines.)

“My ancestors have been in America since the early 17th century,” Wilson begins. “And for the first two 144 years, we never had a problem finding a job. But since 1863, it’s been hell.” It’s a funny opening, and a stinging one, and he stays with that tone throughout, recounting his family’s journey and his own, introducing us to his friends and acquaintances and lovers and mentors. There are moments that verge on the hackneyed stand-up comic’s “White people are like …” shtick, but for the most part, his voice is clear, original and refreshing. And in the final moments, when he recounts the skepticism and harassment an older, accomplished Wilson suffered when trying to cash a check—from the Mark Taper Forum, no less—at a local bank branch, you’re reminded of recent episodes at Barneys and Macy’s and, yet again, how little things can change.

The director Jack O’Brien inserts a note in the Playbill for his production of Macbeth, which opened last week at Lincoln Center Theater. “Whatever else it might be, it is primarily glorious poetry,” he says of the Scottish play. “The very sound the text makes, spoken in the air and in the protected confines of a theater, is mesmerizing.” In the next paragraph, he continues: “And so, no stranger to the text, I have chosen to concentrate on the imagery of the play.”

This is a non sequitur argument—the play is primarily language; I have chosen to focus on the visuals—but it’s indisputably what’s on display at the Vivian Beaumont. Mr. O’Brien’s staging, even with its big-name cast, is visually stunning but otherwise a bore.

Is Richard Easton a plummy pleasure as King Duncan? Of course. Anne-Marie Duff lovely and a little scary as Lady Macbeth? Sure. Daniel Sunjata and Brian d’Arcy James forceful and fine as Macduff and Banquo? Yep. Byron Jennings, John Glover and Malcom Gets a weird trio of transgendered witches? Why not. But it all seems to add up to very little, an interminable, forgettable evening. Ethan Hawke is typically angsty but uncharacteristically subdued in the title role, and Jonny Orsini, as the usurped Malcolm, is woefully overmatched by the language.

Which leaves those visuals. Scott Pask’s foreboding set has a dark, talismanic floor and huge, forbidding walls and stairs that glide in and out of place, framing huge playing spaces and beautiful stage pictures. Japhy Weideman’s lighting is a beautiful and controlled, minimal, stark and expressive. Catherine Zuber’s leather costumes are artful mix of medieval and modern. Mr. O’Brien uses it all to create glorious imagery. If only he’d focused, too, on the rest of it.