Hirst, played here by a marvelously deadpan Stewart, listens and drinks while Spooner — McKellen, exquisite in his poised buffoonery — babbles on. The host and his guest met in a bar, we're informed, but in Act Two, which takes place the next morning, it's implied they may be old friends. Or, as their increasingly curious recollections and revelations (especially Spooner's) can suggest, we could be witnessing a game, or a scam, or some blurring of reality and fantasy or delusion.
NO MAN'S LAND Broadway Reviews
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McKellen has a flashier physical role than does Stewart in Pinter's 1975 power play about Hirst, a successful alcoholic writer (Stewart, almost unrecognizable with his shaved head covered with a blond toupee). He has brought a seedy gadfly poet (McKellen) named Spooner home to his handsome, sparsely furnished house with the well-stocked liquor cabinet. They may have known each other at Oxford, or maybe not. In fact, the poet -- if, indeed, he is a poet -- may, or may not, have had an affair with the host's wife, taking "simply that portion of herself all women keep in reserve for a rainy day."
In both plays, McKellen and Stewart deliver a master class in acting that seems to echo Beckett and Pinter's underlying theme: the struggle of men against the challenge and inevitability of death. By their age-defying enthusiasm, the seventysomething stars manage the tricky feat of making challenging material engaging, fun, and ultimately life-affirming. The ease of their companionship is almost infectious, elevating these productions to the sublime.
In the staid “No Man’s Land,” Hirst (Stewart), a successful poet, and Spooner (McKellen), a failed one, having met in a London pub, drink into the night in Hirst’s well-appointed home. The overtly homosexual overtones in some productions -- Hirst and Spooner meet in Hampstead Heath, known as a gay-cruising destination -- are not particularly dwelled upon here.
Director Sean Mathias and his talented quartet of actors (they are billed above the title alphabetically as Billy Crudup, Shuler Hensley, Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart) do lovely service to both of them. No big bangs and whistles at the Cort Theatre; just a solidly acted pair of straightforward mountings that, despite all the attention paid to the two more famously named stage artists, serve the playwrights very well.
These productions mostly stay, comfortably and tantalizingly, on the surface. But in doing so, they also bring out the beguiling polish and shimmer in Pinter and Beckett’s language. These shows allow us to appreciate the great paradox in some of the best dialogue ever written, which uses eloquence to plumb the futility of speech.
This is all quite hilarious, going well beyond the old British trope of mistaken identity into the realm of existential terror. The comedy arises from the contrast between that terror, mostly interior to the two men individually, and the tortuous forms of speech they’ve evolved to keep it that way. No cliché is left unturned. (Of his mother, Spooner says, “I was fortunate to escape with my life.”) And while Hirst may seem at first too decrepit to play with words — in Act One Stewart squeezes great comedy out of merely considering saying something — he emerges in Act Two suddenly hale and lucid. This is extreme but not absurd. Who has not felt the shock of other people’s alteration? Or the slow apprehension of one’s own?
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.
McKellen's Spooner is an overly voluble, romantic lush with a moocher's heart, wearing a worn suit and dirty white canvas shoes. 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.
The whisky flows, served neat. The conversation, like the wall, is curvy. It’s unclear if Hirst and Spooner really know each other from university. Also uncertain: Did Hirst, as he blithely recalls, bed Spooner’s girl? McKellen’s silent slow-burn response speaks volumes. He’s got one of the most expressive faces, voices and command of body language on the planet. Stewart gets Hirst’s imperiousness and vulnerability just right.
t’s all very inscrutable and cool, but the show’s mysteriously compelling. This has a lot to do with the easy rapport of the leads, who are besties in real life — McKellen even became a Universal Life Church minister to officiate at Stewart’s wedding.
In the second act, Hirst and Spooner engage in a long, amusing dialogue about the people they knew back in college, raising the question of whether, in fact, they've been previously acquainted. Or is Hirst engaging in an elaborate joke? The play ends sedately, with Hirst's toast, "I'll drink to that."
In "No Man's Land," an established poet (Stewart) who inexplicably invites to his home a barfly (McKellen) who may or may not be his old school chum, leaving the literary figure's secretary and bodyguard (Crudup and Hensley) puzzled. Although it is a minor title in the Pinter canon, it is the more successful of the shows.
‘Waiting for Godot’ & ‘No Man’s Land’ Theater Review: Ian McKellen & Patrick Stewart Lighten Up on the Angst
McKellen mines laughs in “No Man’s Land” where none exist. Watch him, at age 74, get down on his knee to tie one shoe lace, only to perform a nimble bent-knee leap to tie the other. Audiences may find that his verbal and physical dexterity makes for a lighter, more digestible night at the theater, but it also diminishes the desperation that drives Spooner, a down-and-out poet, into the no man’s land of another writer’s well-appointed, servant-infested manse.
For the past month, New York has been awash in Beckett and Pinter, brought to us by Great English Actors. None of these productions has represented the performers at their peak. Case in point: when Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart did their new-to-Broadway production of Waiting for Godot in London, in 2010, they harvested acclaim for the freshness of their clowning. But, as with many London theatrical exports arriving on American shores, the routines now seem so worked-out they’re stiff.