Why are some of the world’s best actors so content to be Harold Pinter’s bitch? It must be the challenge of the material and the chance to chew a bit of scenery because it isn’t the plot. Right now through August 31, 2013, director Sean Mathias is giving Pinter's 1974 absurdist play, No Man's Land, a pre-Broadway shakedown cruise at Berkeley Rep, with Ian McKellen, Patrick Stewart, Billy Crudup and Shuler Hensley filling out the small, excellent cast. This October, Daniel Craig and his real-life spouse, Rachel Weisz, star in the Mike Nichols-directed Broadway revival of Pinter's tiresome, 1978 infidelity drama, Betrayal. And then, in November, No Man's Land opens on Broadway, where it will run in repertory with Waiting for Godot, which Mathias directed with McKellen as Estragon and Stewart as Vladimir in 2009.
Is Pinter really worth all this fuss? I've never thought so, and No Man's Land, for all its moments of clever wordplay and flashes of farce, doesn't trouble itself too much to convince audiences otherwise. From an actor's perspective, it must be great fun to deliver all that sparkling Pinteresque dialogue, and witnessing the delivery by this cast in particular is an obvious treat, but something's amiss when a play about the unreliability of memory leaves no indelible impression of its own. As for the ending, it's deliberately, even defiantly, flaccid, which I suppose is at least in keeping with the spirit of a dark comedy about two old men reminiscing about their glory days.
Ian McKellen (left) and Patrick Stewart in No Man's Land at Berkeley Rep.
When we meet Hirst (Stewart) and Spooner (McKellen), the pair has just returned from a pub. The ambiguous nature of their relationship is telegraphed immediately, as the effusive and rumpled Spooner tries to draw his taciturn, exceedingly prosperous host into conversation. Hirst prefers to drown himself in drink, sinking deeper and deeper into his easy chair, his face doing its best to impersonate a pair of clenched buttocks.
Not offered a chair of his own, Spooner stands for fully two-thirds of the first act, which McKellen accentuates by occasionally rocking back on his heels and up on his toes. Not even offered a hanger for his coat, Spooner carries it on his arm for almost the entire first act, as a waiter would a bar towel. At one point, we sit transfixed as Spooner juggles his coat, his half-full glass of Scotch, a bottle from his host's well-stocked bar and his host's glass, too, which he somehow manages to fill and hand to Hirst without spilling a drop.
McKellen's Chaplin-worthy performance is a simple tour-de-force, the mundane elevated to something approaching ballet. All the while, Spooner seizes on Hirst's handful of grudging utterances, manufacturing bonds of common experience from thin air, leaving Hirst ever more confused about the down-on-his-heels wretch he's invited into his home. Pinter was famous for peppering his scripts with stage directions to force his actors to speak his speech, if you will, but I'd be disappointed to learn that McKellen is simply following orders when he decides to trill words like "brilliance" and "threadbare." Similarly, you can demand that your actors pause mid-sentence, but can you compel them to transform what could have been a throwaway aside into a blistering punch line? I guess I hope not.
Shuler Hensley (left) and Billy Crudup in No Man's Land at Berkeley Rep.
Toward the end of the first act, Foster (Crudup) and Briggs (Hensley) arrive to inject a bit of menace into the proceedings and confirm the high esteem with which Spooner regards Hirst, while simultaneously throwing doubt on Spooner's claims of friendship. Crudup is great as the tough-talking, lower-class pretty boy, and Hensley surprises as the muscle with more beneath the surface than his gruff exterior would suggest.
And then, after appearing beaten at the end of act one, Hirst returns at the beginning of act two, back to what we imagine is his true (or at least sober) dapper self. Now it's Stewart's turn to dazzle us with Pinter's steamroller dialogue as McKellen's Spooner stares in disbelief, clutching his champagne glass like a child would his teddy bear. Pinter, we finally realize, has decided to tell us a good deal more about Hirst than we'd imagined we'd learn when the curtain rose, but much less about Spooner, whose initial gregariousness appeared to have been evidence of a quaint concept the world once called candor, but probably was not.
In the end, I could have watched scenes like that all night. In fact, with this cast on stage, I'm pretty sure it would have been worth the price of admission to just be a fly on the wall as they did nothing more than sit around a table, drinking real Scotch, while opening a month's worth of junk mail. No doubt No Man's Land is someone's idea of an important play, but like a lot of people in the audience, I was more than satisfied by the acting the playwright could never have hoped to control.
No Man's Land runs through August 31, 2013, at Berkeley Repertory Theater. For tickets and information, visit berkeleyrep.org.
All photos courtesy of kevinberne.com.