Welcome to Smart Reviews, Broadway Edition! I’ve been lucky enough to have seen several superb shows on the Big Broad Way in recent weeks. People are always asking me to recommend shows, and while my go-to suggestions have been The Glass Menagerie, anything happening at the AFO Festival, and Lincoln Center’s Domesticated (a version of which has been published over at PlaysToSee), the following three Broadway shows merit a place on the list as well.
Waiting For Godot, Cort Theatre
With the exception of, well, other Beckett plays, there’s nothing quite as anomalous as Waiting For Godot. No one else has come close to depicting that post-WWII despair which rendered language so hilariously meaningless. But as the marketing campaign for “Two Plays in Rep,” the two shows directed by Sean Mathias alternating at the Cort Theatre, has made clear, Sirs Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart are the real stars of this production – not Samuel Beckett. Their “Broadway bromance,” as I believe Playbill dubbed it, provides an integral piece of their portrayals of Estragon and Vladimir. A chummy co-dependence, clearly grounded in the stars’ long history of acting together, guides their romp through Beckett’s timeless, featureless landscape.
Patrick Stewart’s Didi dons a not-too-shabby suit and cuts a striking figure amidst this unremarkable panorama. Whenever separated from Gogo, however, his authority gives way to endearing, wide-eyed gasps. Ian McKellen makes a delightful, doddering Gogo, shouldering pain and exhaustion with a bemused grin. Each time Didi reminds him why they can’t leave, his “Ohhhh” plays like an elongated scowl, the result of constant forgetfulness. McKellen understands that the trappings of old age supply the most convincing clowning. His epic struggle to put on a boot is topped only by his struggle to put on the other.
Shuler Hensley is grand and haughty as Pozzo, Beckett’s personification of wealth tugging at a rope that spans the stage – a visual interruption of Beckett’s meticulous monotony. At the other end is Billy Crudup’s Lucky, whose constant, wagging physicality unnerves almost as much as the spittle dangling from his mouth – he toils to set down the bags, move Pozzo’s chair, pick up the bags again, oh, the futility. Their return in act two, one dumb and one blind, is as disconcerting as it should be. But this Godot is a warm one, more charming than alarming, with Stewart and McKellen finding humor even in the awkward beats between those nonsensical lines.
The Winslow Boy, American Airlines Theatre
Premiering on Broadway for the first time since 1947, Terence Rattigan’s finely-tuned The Winslow Boy is based on the public trial of young George Archer-Shee, who was accused by a Naval Academy of petty theft. Here it is Ronnie Winslow (Spencer Davis Milford) whose expulsion from school incites his father Arthur (Roger Rees) to put everything on the line in the name of truth. A master of the well-made play, Rattigan is nobly concerned here with the distinction between justice and right, particularly in the context of English identity about a century ago. With war brewing and a period of intense cultural change on the horizon, what faith can we put in our government or even ourselves if the right thing can’t be done?
Lindsay Posner’s production runs like a well-oiled machine, tackling these issues with dogged earnestness. Straight-forward yet exquisite set and costumes by Peter McKintosh immerse us completely in the time period. This no-frills approach, however, can’t overcome some of the clunkier exposition in the first act. Curious too is the figure of Grace Winslow, the oft-beleaguered wife whose only dramatic function seems to be articulating the sacrifices her family is so obviously making. It doesn’t help that Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio can’t seem to decide whether the character serves only limp comic relief or bristly tough love. As middle child Dickie Winslow, Zachary Booth similarly opts for silliness over depth, seldom demonstrating his insecurity as the least favored of his father’s children (a potentially rich storyline Rattigan mostly ignores).
Far more nuanced is the magnetic work by Charlotte Parry as Cate, the suffragette daughter who doesn’t believe in lost causes. To see her negotiate with her doubtful fiancé (Chandler Williams, Colin Firth circa 1993) about stopping the trial is to feel your heart shatter. The restraint she exhibits in keeping Cate’s composure through it all, especially when her father can’t, is truly outstanding. Parry’s best scenes by far are with Roger Rees, the patriarch who loves his children far more than his own deteriorating health. His desperate determination to bring his son’s case all the way to victory embodies his every movement, until Rees remains a frantically convulsing cripple, sweaty and askew. Also excellent are Alessandro Nivola as the steely, domineering advocate Sir Robert Morton, and Michael Cumptsy as the amusingly strained Desmond Curry. I won’t reveal the outcome of the trial; the moving climax that determines the Winslows’ fate is not to be missed.
Pippin, Music Box Theatre
Drop whatever you’re doing right now and go see this show. Seriously. Buy online, grab a standing room ticket just before a performance, hell, get down on your knees and beg the box office dude to let you in. And I’ll beg with you, because I would see it again in an instant.
“Extraordinary,” as Pippin sings, doesn’t even begin to cover this show’s technical ambition. Diane Paulus’ entire cast are practically quadruple-threats, given the mind-boggling acrobatics happening amidst the singing of Stephen Schwartz’s songs and dancing of Bob Fosse’s original 1972 choreography. There’s even acting! Terrence Mann and Tovah Feldshuh shine as Pippin’s father and grandmother, respectively, but it’s Patina Miller who slinks away with the show. Her Leading Player coils and uncoils like a snake, channeling Fosse’s contained, often menacing style with aplomb. She is aided by a company of sexy circus freaks who each manage to distinguish themselves through sheer athleticism and talent.
The only thing I didn’t like about this incredible revival was that when it ended, I had to get up and go back to a world where there’s no magic to do.