We’re so used to the idea that Pinter, never mind his famous pause, signals impenetrability and menace, that when Ian McKellen or Patrick Stewart use his text to demonstrate their acting virtuosity—as well as the play’s accessibility--out jumps the weasel from beneath the cocktail cabinet, never to be heard from again. Discussing the subject congenially at a January 23 talkback of No Man’s Land, the Pinter play currently in rep with Beckett's Waiting for Godot at the Cort Theatre (there will also be such events on February 6, February 13, February 20 and February 27; all Thursdays)—the company tells us that no one is interested in obscuring anything. Instead, the secret to Pinter, they say, is that there is no secret.
When a student in the audience asks how anyone finds the acting objective in such a play, McKellen explains simply that his character, the soiled Spooner, wearing a ponytail—a part also played so memorably in New York, and tightly stitched, by Christopher Plummer in 1994--needs basic necessities: food, to keep warm. The character—apparently both of the leading roles were named after cricket players--has gone from cruising men’s lavatories—living in sneakers and an old grey-striped suit--to landing in the home of an upper class writer (Stewart).
And, oh, do these unloved men need a drink, as they remind of Charlie Chaplin and the drunk millionaire in City Lights. Look, though, at McKellen lifting a glass of champagne, as if he’s imbibing from the chalice of the gods. He holds it with two hands, on either side of the bowl, tasting, swirling the liquid, feeling the slight burn, the elation of a kick—but it’s not played the way we’ve seen so many actors overdo it. He’s looked at the progressive details--and resees them without generalizing. Watch him eat scrambled eggs, too--you’ll be transfixed, believe it or not. How does he get just enough yolk on his mustache to make him look so greedy and starved and seedy? It’s like watching a pointillist painter working in midair.