Well … theater buffs have a stellar season this year. Not only do we have three major Shakespearean revivals, but two of the finest actors of their generation have come to town for a repertory of two plays. Any occasion when Patrick Stewart (born 1940) or Ian McKellen (born 1939) appear is one for celebration – when they are appearing together, it is an occasion for unbridled delight.
Sadly, Stewart and McKellen have chosen to come to Broadway not in Shakespeare, but in two plays by Harold Pinter (1930-2008) and Samuel Beckett (1906-1989).
Though much-beloved by Modernists and other intellectual lightweights, Pinter’s plays most often leave audiences scratching their heads and thinking… what the heck was that about? That reaction is mollified – to a great degree – by the delight of watching these two seasoned scene-stealers onstage together.
Pinter’s No Man’s Land premiered originally in London in 1975, with John Gielgud (1904-2000) as Spooner and Ralph Richardson (1902-1983) as Hirst. This production transferred to Broadway for a 1976-77 run, and has entered into Broadway history. (The original production with Richardson and Gielgud was filmed for the National Theatre Archive, and can be seen in three parts on YouTube starting at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Wd6iKPkXMqY). Your correspondent saw an absolutely smashing production of the play in 1994 at the Roundabout Theatre Company with Christopher Plummer (born 1929) as Spooner and Jason Robards (1922-2000) as Hirst – and though the play was still incomprehensible to me, it was great larks.
The plot, to call it such, is that Hirst – an alcoholic man of letters living in a posh abode somewhere near Hampstead – picks up Spooner, a seedy poet, taking him home for a drink. Spooner stays on overnight as an unwilling guest, also interacting with Hirst’s menacing manservants, Foster and Briggs. What is going on – and who really knows who and to what extent these are old friends, or strangers or potential lovers or … well, anything, are left ambiguous and up to the viewer. (Kenneth Tynan was greatly disturbed by Pinter’s “gratuitous obscurity,” and to that we add, “Amen, Brother.”) It is a play that has no business working, but it with the right actors, it always “plays.”
At first, I was a little trepidatious about the casting. Spooner (originally Gielgud, later Plummer and here McKellen) does the vast majority of the talking, while Hirst (Richardson, then Robards and now Stewart) responds obliquely. Though McKellen has a fine voice and a mighty persona, he is always more a character than an actor, and I had hoped that Stewart – the more accomplished and compelling of the two – would take center stage. Moreover, Spooner is such a showy role that Hirst always seems gets lost in the proceedings – my memory of Robards (a great actor), for example, is practically nil.
However, I’m delighted to report that the casting was correct. It would take an actor of mighty aspect and peerless technique to make Hirst the equal of Spooner, and Stewart carries off this impossible task with ease. While McKellen makes catnip out of his outlandish verbal wordplay, Stewart stops the show with pithy, monosyllabic answers. They are perfectly and evenly matched.
McKellen here resists his normal temptation to overact, and he is simply the finest Spooner I’ve ever seen. He is complete control of his voice and manner, and he manages to command attention even when sitting at ease. In his seedy suit, greasy hair pulled back with a rubber band, two-day stubble and dirty tennis shoes, he is the failed literary man to a T. I have seldom seen him so …. human.
Stewart is fit and stunning is a gray toupee and tweeds, later in a smart blue suit. Oddly enough, the addition of hair makes this seemingly ageless actor look older, which works for the overall conception of the part. Stewart has several fine monologs, but the show really takes off in the second act when Stewart and McKellen reminisce (if reminisce they do – it’s possible they don’t really know one another) about shared wives and girlfriends. It’s the kind of badinage that the audience craves from them, and is in such short supply in this play.
Special mention must be made of Billy Crudup (born 1965), who plays the vile Foster. It is a nothing part, and I’ve never seen anyone do anything with it; however, Crudup, in his two monologs, nearly steals attention away from his more distinguished co-stars completely. We need him on Broadway more than ever.
No Man’s Land is directed and staged with a sure hand by Sean Mathias (1956) and the set is wonderfully evocative. The cast broke character at curtain to entreat the audience to support Broadway Cares, a worthy organization.
Readers of this blog know that your correspondent is no great fan of Modernism, and that my aesthetic is largely pre-Industrial Revolution. As such, I admit to a possible antipathy to works such as this. That said, however, No Man’s Land is a play so slight as to be nearly transparent. It was always a vehicle for two great actors and this product provides that pleasure in spades. One only wishes the vehicle equaled their talents.