I walked into Broadway's Cort Theatre for a Thursday night performance of No Man's Land to see Sir Patrick Stewart and Sir Ian McKellen, icons of theater and nerd culture. I walked out of the same theatre confused but with a new appreciation for the master thespians and for playwright Harold Pinter.
What does it mean? Stewart's character Hirst asks this in Act Two of the production, which runs through March 30, but it may as well be asked about the show itself.
All that is certain is that the play is set in 1975 in a large room with a bar at a house located in North West London neighborhood of Hampstead. And over the course of two hours of tension undercut by comedic dialogue, we get to know the man of letter Hirst, McKellen's optimistic but hard-up "poet" Spooner, and Hirst's two menacing/overprotective servants Foster (Billy Crudup) and Briggs (Shuler Hensley).
Depending on your viewpoint, No Man's Land is "about" two elderly gentlemen meeting in a pub for the first time who proceed to return to one's home for a night and day of drunken (and unreliable) reminisces. Or maybe it is about a man's artistic alter ego attempting to reach his affluent counterpart. Or about an outsider who upsets the status quo or perhaps that outside is attempting to save a man from the oblivion his servants seem to desire for him.
Or it is about something else entirely. According to Billy Crudup, in a post-show "talk back" on stage with costars Stewart, McKellen and Hensley, it is OK to be confused.
"I don't know that the four of us have the same idea of what's happening in this space," he said. "There's confusion about the knowability of their motivations, of their status of their feelings. It's obfuscated and misdirected so brilliantly in this play."
Crudup's comments, and the entire talk back, established a welcoming environment throughout the theatre - and was especially appreciated by audience members such as myself who are not the closest studies of Harold Pinter. Based on audience reactions, we sensed the palpable energy crackling on stage, and we shared awareness we were watching two acting legends and celebrated best friends play off one another. We laughed, sometimes at the wrong times, and many of us scratched our heads.
But again, that's OK. Even McKellen admitted he wasn't only not on the same page as his colleagues when he began reading the play, he was "off the page."
Clearly, neither Pinter's 1975 play, nor Samuel Beckett's Waiting For Godot -- the companion piece with the same cast running concurrently at the Cort - is easy to understand but they are by no means dry. And Crudup's statement reinforces the mission of Stewart, McKellen and director Sean Mathias that the most important part is to show up and absorb.
"People worry too much about coming to the theater," said Stewart in the talk back, who added it didn't matter to him if people were there to see Gandalf or Captain Picard, as long as they got their "bums in the seats."
The bums were certainly in the seats during the Thursday performance, and those same bums were standing up and applauding when the curtain fell. If Stewart, McKellen and company's intent was theater for the masses, then the masses seemed pleased.
For this writer, No Man's Land felt like an important moment on Broadway. It was accessible but not watered down. What's more, McKellen said it was the best job he'd ever had, and it showed through in the performance that the sentiment was a true one, and shared by his colleagues.