No Man’s Land, Cort Theatre, New York – review

For the past month, New York has been awash in Beckett and Pinter, brought to us by Great English Actors. None of these productions has represented the performers at their peak. Case in point: when Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart did their new-to-Broadway production of Waiting for Godot in London, in 2010, they harvested acclaim for the freshness of their clowning. But, as with many London theatrical exports arriving on American shores, the routines now seem so worked-out they’re stiff.

No Man’s Land, Pinter’s 1975 drama about two elderly literary men in Hampstead, which is playing in rep with Godot, exhibits similar tendencies. Though McKellen’s voice, deep and supple, is always a pleasure to hear live, his physical movement seems as calculated as a Hollywood action sequence. The sole McKellen moment in this two-act evening, directed by Sean Mathias, that made me purr came when his character, Spooner, appeared to slip while getting up: spontaneity at last.

As Hirst, the successful littérateur to McKellen’s down-and-out poet, Stewart has fewer occasions for bravura. To elicit audience reaction – and, to be fair, my audience seemed plenty pleased by the play – he put a master bowler’s spin on almost all the lines involving drink. As No Man’s Land is a kind of alcoholic Olympics, Stewart’s sallies were continuous.

If I took more pleasure in the Sirs’ co-stars, the Americans Shuler Hensley and especially Billy Crudup, it is not, I hope, out of chauvinism, but because the latter duo appear still to be finding their way: confidence has not hardened their responses. This was true not only in the Godot, which the Americans did not do in London, but also in the Pinter. As Foster, the supposed amanuensis of Hirst, Crudup conveyed a precise blend of menace and mirth.

As for the play itself, which I was lucky enough to see as a lad with its original stars, John Gielgud and Ralph Richardson, I find new things in it upon each listening. Its deliberate obtuseness can be frustrating: are the characters caught in some limbo between life and death, or merely so soused that nothing they say could possibly make any sense? But, as with most of Pinter, the act of enjoyment trumps the act of understanding. I only wish I had found a bit more enjoyment in this production.

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