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The sets for the masterfully acted Broadway repertory double of Harold Pinter’s No Man’s Land and Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot are framed by the crumbling proscenium of a broken-down old theater, a metaphor at once obvious and appropriate for two absurdist plays that present the treacherous limbo between birth and death as tragicomic vaudeville. Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart make a riveting duo as the principal performers destined — or doomed — for eternity to play out routines of existential unease and encroaching mortality that seem to be dredged up from muscle memory or from the remotest recesses of their characters’ unreliable minds.
While better known recently for facing off as archenemies Magneto and Professor Charles Xavier in the X-Men screen franchise, McKellen and Stewart first shared a stage in 1977 for the Royal Shakespeare Company, reteaming in 2009 when this production of Godot debuted in London’s West End. 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.
Sean Mathias redeems himself for the misstep of Breakfast at Tiffany’s on this same Broadway stage last season with his tight direction of the ensemble here. In addition to McKellen and Stewart, whose stage chemistry is scintillating, the cast of both plays includes Billy Crudup, nailing radically different roles, and Shuler Hensley. For audiences drawn by the star names, the discovery of New York theater stalwart Hensley will be an additional reward. He plays Pinter’s thuggish manservant Briggs, and Beckett’s monster of privilege Pozzo, a role he turns into a self-inflated Yosemite Sam, replete with Wild West drawl.
While Godot is arguably the most straightforward of Beckett’s allegories for the elusiveness of truth, faith, purpose, connection and even coherence in the stagnant mire of human existence, Pinter touches on some of those same themes in ways far more cryptic in No Man’s Land. This resolutely elliptical play was originally directed by Peter Hall and starred John Gielgud and Ralph Richardson in a production acclaimed in both London and New York.
Savage and funny, terse and hauntingly poetic, it brings together two men who may or may not have known one another back at Oxford, who may both be literary figures and may have shared friends and lovers. Pitting them in a game of one-upmanship in which they constantly undercut one another and the veracity of their recollections, Pinter ultimately consigns them to the oblivion that gives the play its title.
McKellen takes on the choicest of the main roles in the poet Spooner, an obsequious sponge who has met well-heeled man of letters Hirst (Stewart) over drinks in a local pub and accompanied him to his home near Hampstead Heath for a few more. In designer Stephen Brimson Lewis’ austere set, the host’s living room is both a statement of stifling tastefulness and a scary cell in which Spooner, a shabby drunk despite his posturing refinement, is unceremoniously imprisoned for the night by Hirst’s hostile amanuensis Foster (Crudup) and his intimidating butler/bodyguard Briggs. With their air of homoerotic complicity, this domestic duo claim to be Hirst’s protectors, viewing Spooner suspiciously as an intruder who might upset their status quo.
In a play in which words and phrases are continually scrutinized for hidden meaning, the loquacious Spooner describes Hirst as “kindness itself,” while clinging to the upper-crust drunkard’s bar, or tottering about the room nursing a bottle of whiskey like a babe in arms. The more taciturn Hirst is considerably less steady on his feet, occasionally piping up to question Spooner’s reminiscences and musings until he collapses and is ushered off to bed.
Morning brings a complete turnaround as Hirst returns wearing a fresh façade of cordiality. He launches into a double-edged account of their shared past that appears to be a complete fabrication. However, Spooner plays along, turning the exchange into a goading competition masked in civility, until Hirst explodes: “This is outrageous! Who are you? What are you doing in my house?”
“I have known this before,” says Spooner more than once, suggesting an ominous scenario fated to be played out over and over again. His ingratiating bid to take on a secretarial position for Hirst seems as much an attempt to rescue his host as to save himself. But the application falls on deaf ears, leaving the four men locked in wintry silence.
The main roles in Godot – another pared-down play famous for the fact that nothing happens – in many ways are imperfect mirror images of Hirst and Spooner, wearing bowler hats that make them appear like a vagabond Laurel and Hardy. Stewart’s Vladimir, affectionately known as Didi, is the restless thinker, blindly clinging to the belief that the enigmatic title figure will show up for a designated appointment beneath a dead tree. McKellen’s wheezing Estragon, or Gogo, is more enfeebled, both physically and mentally. His memory is as broken as his feet, requiring Didi every day to remind him of the previous day’s events. As irascible and indulgent with each other as any old married couple, they often wonder if they wouldn’t have been better off alone. The one thing they consistently agree on is that hanging themselves from the tree would be a fine idea, if only they had some rope.
While Beckett’s minimal notes call for “a country road,” Mathias places the characters in a scene of extreme urban decay, on a stage of dusty floorboards with the ruins of buildings behind them. The production’s emphasis on the humor perhaps undersells the pathos of these figures and their ongoing fruitless struggle for they know not what. Survival seems a sad consolation prize in this play. But the director knows how to get the most out of his actors, expertly modulating McKellen’s and Stewart’s capacity to play flipsides of the same coins – buffoonish or wise, maudlin or resilient, clueless or savvy. The tenderness that binds Didi and Gogo together is as tangible as their fear of solitude, pointing to a deep affection between these two actors.
As they do in No Man’s Land, Crudup and Hensley hold their own in this illustrious company, and the scenes in which Pozzo and his baggage-carrying slave Lucky wander by are both hilarious and horrifying. Hensley’s Pozzo is a pompous bellowing oaf, yet somehow pitiable as he flaps about like a beached whale on the ground, unable to get up. As Lucky, a bedraggled weed of a man with his lank silvery mane, Crudup draws heavily on mime skills. He shuffles about in mute servitude until ordered to dance or think on cue, prompting a jumbled stream of unintelligible philosophy that suggests he once had command of a formidable mind.
However, both plays belong to Stewart and especially McKellen. Aloof in the Pinter role and benign in the Beckett, Stewart can shift from dryly dignified to pathetic within a single sentence, finding surprise moments of humor and poignancy. But it’s McKellen whose inventive line readings are most ideally paired with two playwrights known for their idiosyncratic use of language. What’s more, his effortless physicality – a drunken lurch across the room, a whimsical little dance step, a crumpled fold of his body into a messy heap – makes every minute he’s onstage mesmerizing.
Venue: Cort Theatre, New York
Cast: Ian McKellen, Patrick Stewart, Billy Crudup, Shuler Hensley, Colin Critchley, Aidan Gemme
Director: Sean Mathias
Playwrights: Harold Pinter/Samuel Beckett
Set & costume designer: Stephen Brimson Lewis
Lighting designer: Peter Kaczorowski
Music & sound designers: Rob Milburn, Michael Bodeen
Projection designer: Zachary Borovay
Presented by Stuart Thompson, Nomango Productions, Jon B. Platt, Elizabeth Williams/Jack M. Dalgleish
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