Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart are once again two lost souls searching a barren terrain for some sort of meaning to life, this time in a toney drawing room off Hampstead Heath in Harold Pinter's No Man's Land. They have no better luck finding it in Pinter than they do in Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot, which they are performing in repertory at the Cort Theatre.
The pairing of No Man's Land with Godot is a stroke of genius, bringing the two masters of comedic and enigmatic incomprehension, Pinter and Beckett, to the stage in alternating performances that underscore the affinity between them. Under Sean Mathias's excellent direction, each play serves as a vibrant testimony as to why the playwrights are justly credited with pushing the boundaries of the theater in new directions.
Certainly neither of the Nobel laureates could ask for better advocates than McKellen and Stewart, ably supported by the estimable Billy Crudup and the talented Shuler Hensley, the latter especially in the Pinter play. The only other time I've seen No Man's Land was with John Gielgud and Ralph Richardson, and I was so mesmerized by those great actors on the same stage, the play itself made little impression. With McKellen and Stewart, actors of no less greatness, the poetry of the play came to life for me.
No Man's Land opens in the home of Hirst, a dapper man of advancing years who is attired in a sport coat likely tailored on Savile Row, suede shoes, and a coiffure probably groomed at Trumper's. He is pouring a healthy measure of Scotch for Spooner, a man of like years clad in a suit that had seen better days with the lining hanging out of one sleeve, tennis shoes, and a bobbed salt-and-pepper pony tail dangling out of a corduroy cap. Each man is a poet, with careers that have gone in opposite directions.
Spooner is effusive in extoling Hirst's "kindness," especially after his host tops up his glass of Scotch, and keeps up a steady patter of conversation. Hirst, on the other hand, is rather dour, contributing little beyond the occasional monosyllabic grunt. These roles reverse over the course of the evening and following morning, especially after Foster and Briggs show up as Hirst's servants, bodyguards, minders, or a menacing combination of all three. There is always an unknown menace in Pinter and Crudup and Hensley personify it brilliantly.
The phrase "no man's land," of course, refers to an unoccupied area between two warring armies. It is a place without authority, where there are no rules and nothing is clear. And there is definitely a lack of clarity in Pinter's play. Hirst and Spooner may or may not have just met that very evening at the pub Jack Straw's Castle; they may or may not have known each other at Oxford in their university days; Hirst may or may not have had an affair one summer with Spooner's wife. The only certainty in No Man's Land is that the truth is elusive.
Pinter, like Beckett, was famous for refusing even to discuss his plays let alone explain them, and No Man's Land shows Pinter as the Existential disciple of Beckett. "I remember ... no, I've forgotten," Hirst begins at one point. Later, as the two reminisce, Spooner opines, "It's gone." To which Hirst rejoins, "It never existed." And Spooner eventually declares, "I am I."
Stewart and McKellen are quite simply superb. Every movement and gesture, such as McKellen holding up a pencil or Stewart rolling his eyes, accentuates the humor and the tension in each line. Stewart, whose character does an abrupt U-turn in the middle of the play, makes the switch seamlessly. McKellen, whose character bounces between bravado and neediness, turns Spooner into someone we all recognize, possibly in the mirror. With the two plays in repertory, Broadway audiences have two chances to see two of the English-speaking theater's finest actors onstage together. They should not be missed.