I was fortunate enough to catch Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne in the final years of their long running tandem Broadway careers. They were able to elevate lesser plays like O Mistress Mine, I Know My Love, Quadrille and The Great Sebastians with their magical teamwork, and illuminate more substantial works like Taming of the Shrew, Idiot’s Delight, There Shall Be No Night and their last, The Visit, with their artistry and experience. They took their final bows on November 29, 1959 in the theatre named for them, and I still have images of their work in that one. I can still hear Fontanne seated on the balcony of her home in the last moment of the first act, when told that the town will not accept her demand that they kill her former lover. Her response, after a proper pause, was “I can wait.” It still sends shivers down my spine.
So it will be with a number of moments in the repertoire that is now at the Cort Theatre, combining Harold Pinter’s No Man’s Land with Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. They each employ the same four actors, with Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen sharing top honors in leading roles in both plays, and Billy Crudup and Shuler Hensley supporting in both. I saw the plays on successive nights, and they both gave new meaning to the word “actor”.
In the Beckett play, Stewart plays “Vladimir” and McKellen plays “Estragon”. In the Pinter, Stewart is “Hirst” and McKellen is “Spooner.” Had you not been aware that these four characters were being played by two actors, you’d not have believed it. For they are light years apart in almost every detail. Estragon is a broken down tramp who hasn’t washed in weeks, whose bed is a ditch on a deserted and desolate road near a dark and leafless tree somewhere out there in the dreariest part of the world. Spooner, which Mr. McKellen plays on alternate nights, is somewhat seedy too, but there is about him an air of elegance. He is a poet manqué, and his opening speeches are pages long; elegant, clear and easy on the ears. His appeal for a job to Hirst, in whose home he has been spending the night, is so well spoken, so eloquently delivered that it gives far greater weight to Hirst’s reply.
But this sort of thing happens again and again as these two gifted actors use each other to form a team that reminded me of the Lunts who were known for overlapping each other, for molding their characterizations from the work of both of them. I began to fantasize that in a perfect world, Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen might have rounded out my week by adding Becket, The Front Page and Inherit the Wind to their repertoire, for they all have leading roles for two men.
Come to think of it they might even have borrowed a leaf from their colleague Mark Rylance’s book and tackled John Van Druten’s Old Aquaintance, a play which has two leading ladies. If Rylance and company can play women, why not Stewart and McKellen?
If possible, see both plays they are offering us this season. Both offer a bleak view of the world and all of us who inhabit it. In both cases, elders are waiting in vain for Someone or Something; both offer love as an only solution to the mess we’re in. Godot offers us some, but little hope. No Man’s Land offers even less, but both plays present their grim and gloomy viewpoints well, and manage to find humor in them, which is remarkable. In Godot nothing much happens, but with these two masters doing the waiting, just watching them wait is a treat. Interrupted only by a pair of odd characters, a cruel master called “Pozzo” and his servant “Lucky” (now there’s a name for a frail indentured soul who is attached to his master by a rope around his neck) whose purpose is to represent how terribly we all treat each other.
In the Pinter play, there is a plot of sorts, and the writing is vivid enough to engage us right through to its inevitable ending. I won’t call it satisfying but it is uncompromising, and by the time the play is over I’d totally forgiven it its contradictions and confusions, for it offered two great actors an opportunity to fill in the blanks left by the author, to fill his required Pinter pauses with life.
Billy Crudup, a good looking young actor who’s played his share of romantic characters in the movies, always manages to prove himself a fine character actor when on stage. In The Pillowman and The Elephant Man he showed us how adept he was at rich and rewarding work in live theatre, and in these two current plays, he delivers very exciting work as Lucky the slave in Godot, and a sneaky lowlife of an opportunist from the wrong side of the British tracks in No Man’s Land. He is right up there with his starring colleagues in giving us a lesson in what is inventive and rewarding acting.
His colleague Shuler Hensley, who made a fine and funny monster in Mel Brooks’ musical Frankenstein, and who played the most menacing “Jud Fry” I’d ever seen, in a revival of Oklahoma!, is less successful as Pozzo and Briggs, the top opportunist in No Man’s Land. He plays Pozzo on just the one note — he bellows. He is more successful with Briggs, and handles one menacing scene well by underplaying it, but he spends most of the evening glaring when he’s not centrally involved, and I found Billy Crudup’s “Foster” far more interesting.
Sean Mathias has staged both plays beautifully. The designs he has elicited from Stephen Brimson Lewis add immeasurably to both plays. And his direction allows plenty of time for the two stars to make masterful use of the spaces between lines. To watch Ian McKellen roam the vast drawing room in Patrick Stewart’s home, searching for a bottle and a glass, extracts from us all sorts of reactions. During pages of monologue by McKellen, it is richly rewarding to keep an eye on Stewart for his constantly subtle reactions to each new bit of information.
There is such connection between these two old champs it is difficult to tell when one performance ends and the other begins. It’s like studying the work of minimalist painters, where the more we examine, the more rich detail we discover. For beginning actors, watching these two should be required for a passing grade in Acting I. For the rest of us, you can skip dinner — there is nourishment enough in the delights of McKellen and Stewart, the most memorable couple on stage since Lunt and Fontanne.
Waiting for Godot and No Man’s Land (Two Plays in Rep) is playing thru March 2, 2014 at Cort Theatre, 138 West 48th Street (Between 6th and 7th Aves), NYC. Details and tickets
Richard Seff, Broadway performer, agent, playwright, librettist, columnist adds novelist to his string of accomplishments, with the publication of his first novel, TAKE A GIANT STEP. His first book, Supporting Player: My Life Upon the Wicked Stage, celebrates his lifetime on stage and behind the scenes. Both books are available through online booksellers, including Amazon.com.
He has also written the book to SHINE! The Horatio Alger Musical which was a triple prize winner at the New York Musical Theatre Festival (NYMF). Each year, Actors Equity recognizes the year’s most outstanding supporting player with, appropriately enough, the Richard Seff Award.
Richard Seff is a member of the Outer Critics Circle.