Ian McKellen, Patrick Stewart and "No Man's Land" are a brilliant match.
In the new revival of Harold Pinter's play at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, the legendary actors give a thrilling master class in the existential drama and mordant humor battling for supremacy in this groundbreaking 20th century work.
Pinter's haunting fantasia on memory and identity has provoked debate since its 1975 premiere, and this New York-bound production, deftly directed by Sean Mathias and buoyed by the considerable star power of its two leading men, casts a mesmerizing spell.
McKellen ("Lord of the Rings") and Stewart ("Star Trek," "X-Men") simply command the stage as a pair of booze-soaked British poets who meet in a pub on Hampstead Heath. When Spooner (McKellen) is invited back to the posh townhouse of Hirst (Stewart), what starts as a collegial nightcap turns into one of the theater world's strangest all-nighters.
All goes well at first — Hirst, comfortably well-off, welcomes the threadbare Spooner as a friend.
But did the two men know one another at Oxford, or are they actually strangers? Are they established writers, or self-deluded frauds? As each character lapses into reminisces of things past, the truth becomes ever more elusive.
Mathias' staging, ideal in timing and emotional tone, unfolds on an elegant drawing room set by Stephen Brimson Lewis, who also designed the 1970s-era costumes. Peter Kaczorowski's lighting, and sound by Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen, supply essential atmosphere.
Much of the play is concerned with memory — of wives in summers long past, "true friends" now reduced to photos in an album — yet these characters, like those in "Waiting for Godot," are stuck in an endless present. (This production will play in repertory with "Godot" when it lands in New York.)
The actors make every moment count. McKellen's shambling, melodious-voiced Spooner, thin as air in his rumpled suit, turns the smallest gestures into bits of comic brilliance. Stewart's Hirst is a more stolid creation, his genteel manner giving way to moments of rage and despair.
As Hirst's servant-companions, Billy Crudup gives Foster a magnetic, repellant edge, and Shuler Hensley exudes menace as Briggs. Their performances add a layer of sexual ambiguity and a bolder mendacity.
But "No Man's Land" is less about lies than it is about language. Hearing these actors speak Pinter's lines, rich in poetry and fraught with feeling, is the chief pleasure of this revival. If the Berkeley run is any indication, the Big Apple has a scintillating night of theater coming its way.REVIEW
No Man's Land
Where: Berkeley Repertory Theatre, 2015 Addison St., Berkeley
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays and Fridays, 7 p.m. Wednesdays, 2 and 8 p.m. most Saturdays, 2 or 7 p.m. Sundays, closes Aug. 31
Tickets: $50 to $135
Contact: (510) 647-2949, www.berkeleyrep.org