Seasoned actors at their best in Pinter, Beckett

Patrick Stewart, left, and Ian McKellen in Samuel Beckett’s play “Waiting for Godot.” (Associated Press)
Patrick Stewart, left, and Ian McKellen in Samuel Beckett’s play “Waiting for Godot.” (Associated Press)

Stewart, McKellen unite for double bill

NEW YORK – For those who crave more than a single dose of ennui onstage, rejoice: The theater gods have given you two inscrutably postmodern classics this season. They’ve also been so kind as to throw in a pair of theater gods.

An existential double bill of “No Man’s Land” by Harold Pinter and “Waiting for Godot” by Samuel Beckett opened Sunday at the Cort Theatre, offering two knights at their peerless best: Sirs Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart And the two supporting actors – Billy Crudup and Shuler Hensley – each have Tony Awards.

Each play, performed here with the same four actors under the brilliant direction of Sean Mathias, has bedeviled interpretation for generations. Putting them together in repertory sparks connections, even if the inevitable questions multiply.

The Pinter work first produced in 1975 centers on Hirst, a well-to-do poet teetering on the edge of booze-accelerated dementia, who has invited a shambling bon vivant Spooner home for a drink – or eight. They banter but don’t really connect, and it’s unclear what their real relationship is.

A nightmarish swamp of a play, each man in it seems to spin in his own orbit – stuck in his own no man’s land, which we are told, “remains forever icy and silent.”

McKellen’s Spooner is an overly voluble, romantic lush with a moocher’s heart. He’s a once-proud man now deflated into a soft-shoed jester, yet still trying to keep up appearances. He inadvertently cradles a booze bottle like an infant, plays magic tricks and is a pro at insincerity. McKellen is a wonder.

Stewart plays the more reticent Hirst as an unsteady, hard-boiled drunk surrounded by ghosts. He sits in his leather chair stiffly as if it were a throne, his movements unsure as his mind crumbles. Stewart is marvelous.

If the two leads in “No Man’s Land” are destined to never bond, the ones in “Waiting for Godot” will never be apart.

In Beckett’s absurdist play, written shortly after World War II, two Chaplin-esque fools called Vladimir and Estragon linger near a denuded tree on a bombed-out landscape waiting in vain for a man called Godot. Why is unclear. They amuse each other. They debate whether to hang themselves. They eat turnips.

As they wait, they meet another pair of eccentric travelers – Pozzo, a giant squire of a man, who is controlling a baggage-burdened, nearly-silent servant called Lucky by the end of a rope. Hensley uses a strong Dixie drawl as Pozzo, which makes the master-slave allusion even more uncomfortable. Crudup’s strange rambling soliloquy is a marvel.

McKellen as Estragon is hysterically dim while Stewart’s Vladimir is more of a hand-wringer. Their comfort with each other and the roles is a wonder to watch.

If “No Man’s Land” seems to be a meditation on the elusive quality of memory and truth, “Waiting for Godot” has already plowed similar ground. Beckett also explores defective recollections, dreams that torment, the past as a refuge, time as opaque and a play where “nothing happens.”

“Let us not waste our time in idle discourse!” Vladimir says to his companion. But idle discourse – intriguing moments, nonetheless, and wonderfully acted – is all we really have.

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