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Aisle View: McKellen and Stewart Play Beckett and Pinter

The authors mix bleak despair with comic patter, making the plays catnip for a certain caliber of star actor. Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart have joined together to offer the two plays.
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Samuel Beckett's 1953 Waiting for Godot and Harold Pinter's 1975 No Man's Land rank high on the list of the world drama's enigmatically existential talkfests, placing two aged and futureless characters together in a desolate no man's land with no exit. The authors mix bleak despair with comic patter, which at times approaches vaudeville style, making the plays catnip for a certain caliber of star actor. Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart -- knighted Sirs who spent decades toiling in the theatre before achieving worldwide celebrity as sci-fi movie stars -- have joined together to offer the two plays, in rep, at the Cort Theatre through March 2.

While the Beckett is an acknowledged classic, and the Pinter nearly so, they can be tough sledding for audiences; especially those who feel the need to know what it's all about. The authors carefully avoided explaining things, during the initial productions, and thereafter, and with reason. Beckett's Vladimir and Estragon -- more familiarly known as Didi and Gogo -- are living in a devastated, post-nuclear landscape (perhaps) and waiting for a God (maybe) who will never arrive (presumably). Pinter's pair are poets -- the successful Hirst who has picked up the unsuccessful Spooner at a bar near Hampstead Heath. But as they circle around each other, out come extended tales of their days together at Oxford (questionable?), Hirst's long-time affair with Spooner's wife (fanciful?) and other shared reminiscences of questionable veracity.

Godot has always attracted comic actors -- on Broadway, at least -- since the American premiere in 1956. This is perhaps because Estragon was first played by Bert Lahr, a great comedian who seemed to have pain at his existential core (as can be seen in his most remembered creation, the Cowardly Lion). The play was understandably short-lived in those long-ago Eisenhower days, struggling through a forced two months (the original producer was so dedicated to Godot that he valiantly brought it back to Broadway seven months later -- the quickest revival in history -- with an all-black cast, folding after six performances).

Since then, we've seen it with Estragon and Vladmir, played by Robin Williams and Steve Martin (in 1988, from Mike Nichols) and Nathan Lane and Bill Irwin (in 1999). Both productions did great business, not unexpectedly, but you felt like you were watching superb comedians playing at pathos. With McKellen and Stewart, you have superb dramatic actors. They can easily toss off an old soft-shoe, yes, but this pair has been through Lear, Macbeth and the like. Is that what makes this Godot far more absorbing than the others, at least for this viewer?

If Godot attracts star comedians, No Man's Land -- in its two New York appearances -- has been reserved for great dramatic actors. John Gielgud and Ralph Richardson, who created the roles of Spooner and Hirst in the original London production, recreated their roles here in 1976; Christopher Plummer and Jason Robards took on the parts in 1994. I didn't get much from Gielgud and Richardson, but I was young at the time; as for Plummer and Robards, all I remember is them sitting there in a very dark set, talking and talking, and drinking and drinking. With McKellen and Stewart, it seems like an altogether more accessible and enjoyable play, with the duo balancing the drama with abundant humor found in the text.

Both plays are effectively directed by Sean Mathias, a long-time collaborator of McKellen's, whose New York credits include Indiscretions, Dance of Death and the Billy Crudup revival of The Elephant Man. Thus we find Billy Crudup playing Lucky (in Godot) and the henchman Foster (in the Pinter play); Pozzo and Briggs are played by Shuler Hensley, who gives the former a distinctly Southern accent that comes from somewhere between Alabama and the Ozarks. That's a strong group of actors, with McKellen, Crudup and Hensley all Tony Award winners.

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.