NEW YORK (AP) — 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, eager to play with your head but offering two knights at their peerless best: Sirs Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart.
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.
It's a mark of how stunning a cast has been assembled that the two supporting actors — Billy Crudup and Shuler Hensley — each have Tony Awards. The plays may not always be your cup of tea — filled with spare language, ambiguity, unreliability and disintegration — but there can be no complaints about the service.
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. Are they old friends? What is Spooner's goal? Is he a con man?
We are then introduced to Hirst's personal assistants, who instantly rather dislike Spooner, perhaps because he may represent a threat to their comfortable life. The shabby older man is then locked up in a drawing room for the night when the host topples over one too many times and crawls off to bed.
Act 2 begins the next morning, all is forgiven — but a sense of menace lingers — and the two elderly men verbally spar over past sexual conquests. Here again, it's not clear who is playing with whom. Spooner, seeing a chance for a better life, then begs for a job. It comes to nothing. Curtain.
A nightmarish swamp of a play, each man in it seems to spin in their own orbit — stuck in their 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, 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.
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.
Beckett's absurdist play written shortly after World War II is the better known — two elderly 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 or not 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 — Mathias directed them in a "Godot" in London in 2009 — is a wonder to watch: They laugh and bicker and reconcile like old friends or lovers, each settled into a comforting rhythm. They even have a soft-show shuffle with bowler hats that will make you cheer.
Like the actors, Stephen Brimson Lewis does double duty with both sets and costumes. He creates a cold but elegant semicircle of a stately study for the Pinter play and a post-apocalyptic hell for the Beckett, complete with gaping holes in the wooden slats and crumbling ruins. If you look carefully, Lewis has connected the two by including frayed edges and unfinished elements in the corners of the set for "No Man's Land."
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." No one can leave either play, too, as characters in both complain.
"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 that we really have.