The opportunity to see two great plays starring two great stage actors was impossible to ignore on our recent visit to New York for our family’s annual Thanksgiving gathering. And since both plays are in repertory on Broadway at the Cort Theater, we made a day of it and saw one on Saturday afternoon and the other that evening.
Harold Pinter’s “No Man’s Land” opens with two gentlemen sharing drinks in one of their homes. Their conversation, such as it is, indicates that they have just met that afternoon. The guest (played by Ian McKellan) reveals himself to be a learned man of letters and a teacher of poetry. The host (Patrick Stewart) is an exceedingly taciturn fellow (barely mumbling “yes” and “no” in answer to most questions), who appears to enjoy his alcohol. During the course of this decidedly one-sided conversation, two other men appear. One is the host’s son (Billy Crudup) and the other (Shuler Hensley) is the son’s friend/associate.
The host directs the younger men to attend to certain things while the guest continues to soliloquize. By the end of the evening, the host has all but passed out and been taken out of the room by the younger men, leaving the guest asleep on the floor. Thus ends the first act.
The second act begins where the first left off, with Mr. McKellan’s character awakening on the same floor in the same house. He discovers he had been locked in the room overnight. When his host appears, he greets McKellan warmly, and we soon learn that the two were classmates at Oxford many years before and are now both renowned poets. They also have a significant history with each other, including adulterous affairs with each other’s women.
In this act, the two younger men are merely servants of Mr. Stewart. Their names haven’t changed, but their identities and relationship to each other and Mr. Stewart have. The four men proceed to engage in all manner of conversation, at times friendly towards each other, at others more acrimonious. In the end, they come to the no man’s land where everything is essentially meaningless. With that awareness, they seem to reach a point of sanguinity as the play ends.
If you catch an existentialist tone in the foregoing, it’s intentional. The play is nothing if not a muse of that philosophical discipline, and while it would be apt to say that “nothing happens” over the two acts, that presumably is the playwright’s purpose. In any event, the acting, especially by Mr. Stewart and Mr. McKellan, was excellent, and all four received a sustained standing ovation.
If Pinter’s play is intended to exemplify the existentialist philosophy, Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot” is the veritable primer on the subject. The play was a sensation when it premiered in 1953 and has been taught to drama students ever since.
In this production, directed (as was the Pinter play) by Sean Mathias, the emphasis is heavily on a humorous interpretation of the Beckett script (which, it should be noted, is fully intended to be presented as absurdist theater). Thus the two vagabonds, Estragon (Mr. McKellan) and Vladimir (Mr. Stewart) at times appear to be vamping for the audience, rather than musing about their fates, as other productions emphasize. Mr. Stewart, especially, almost turned his character into a narrator on occasion.
But the star turn in the “over-the-top” acting category would have to go to Mr. Hensley for his portrayal of Pozzo, the “owner” of the slave/servant Lucky (a brilliant Mr. Crudup). Providing even more “comic relief” in a production that was nothing if not comical, Mr. Hensley made his character less than real by making him all show. And that interpretation led to Mr. Crudup’s single speech, the memorable monologue that may reflect Mr. Beckett’s philosophy, which he delivered as one long, unbroken sentence lasting the better part of five minutes. It was a highlight of the first act, albeit those who weren’t familiar with the text may have missed its significance.
Pozzo and Lucky return in the second act, but this was the weakest part of the production, as their presence seemed to add nothing, either of humor or substance, to the on-going “drama” surrounding Estragon and Vladimir. But the two principals picked up their dialogue when the other pair had exited, and Mr. McClellan and Mr. Stewart brought the play back to its essential message of nothingness with what could be described as an upbeat bow to their existence.
All four actors were greeted with a lengthy standing ovation (well-deserved in our opinion), which they then milked into a little dance sequence, kind of as an encore. It might have offended the purists in the audience, but everyone else seemed delighted by it.
Both productions were enhanced by the outstanding set designs (by Stephen Brimson Lewis) and lighting design (by Peter Kaczorowski). Original music was by Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen. The only technical weakness was in the wig that Lucky wore underneath his hat. While it should have revealed him to be an old man, the one he was adorned with had more of a hippie look to it, which couldn’t have been intentional, since he revealed it just after Pozzo had described him as exceedingly old.
That flaw, and the few others in both productions, could not diminish from the highly professional and fully realized portrayals of the existentialist worlds envisioned by both playwrights. The limited run of the two plays in repertory is highly recommended for those who may be in or near New York over the holidays.