Samuel Beckett and Harold Pinter are not the most accessible of playwrights. They can befuddle, and sometimes bore, even the most stalwart theatergoer. The same cannot be said of Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart, who remain admirably approachable and compelling despite their movie-star fame, lofty knighthoods, and resonant Shakespearean voices. Now they're bringing a freshness and an almost kinetic camaraderie to two of the more challenging English-language plays of the 20th century: Beckett's absurdist 1953 epic Waiting for Godot and Pinter's elusive 1975 head-scratcher No Man's Land, playing in repertory on Broadway through March 2.
The two stars have been friends for nearly four decades and that loose and amiable rapport oozes out of them on stage, particularly in Waiting for Godot. Whether they are exchanging double-takes, pantomiming rim-shots in unison, or executing a vaudeville-worthy hat swap, McKellen and Stewart bring an easy-going familiarity to the philosophizing tramps Estragon and Vladimir. The two pass the time in a barren landscape in anticipation of one Godot (here pronounced ''GOD-oh,'' as Beckett apparently preferred). When they greet each other each morning (at the start of each act), you believe the genuine affection and warmth of their embrace. They seem genuinely pleased to have the gift of each other's company after the beatings and indignities of another night spent alone in the wilderness (the stark dystopian set is designed by Stephen Brimson Lewis). And so do we.
Perhaps it's not surprising that the play loses a smidge of its luster with the arrival of the bullwhip-wielding Pozzo (Shuler Hensley, deploying a curious Foghorn Leghorn-like voice) and his woebegone servant, Lucky (Billy Crudup). They turn in solidly professional performances, efficiently directed by Sean Mathias, but pale in comparison to their illustrious costars. (Crudup too must act in the long shadow of John Glover's revelatory turn as Lucky in the 2009 Broadway revival starring Nathan Lane and Bill Irwin.)
Hensley and Crudup have even smaller roles in No Man's Land, which is set in the posh drawing room of a hard-drinking literary giant named Hirst (Stewart, sporting a wig of well-coiffed gray hair) who entertains a mysterious poet manqué called Spooner (McKellen). Dressed in an unkempt, ill-fitting suit, Spooner could be the cousin of Waiting for Godot's Estragon (Vladimir: ''You should have been a poet.'' Estragon: ''I was. [Gestures towards his rags.] Isn't that obvious.'') The exact connection between the two men remains maddeningly elusive are they strangers? College classmates? Professional (and romantic) rivals? Possible lovers? but one doesn't go to a Pinter play seeking clarity of exposition.
Instead, one should go for the witty language play, the verbal power struggles, and two acting titans scrambling for the upper hand in a game whose rules are never fully explained. Mind you, the stars don't merely rely on their well-trained vocal instruments. McKellen works the room with an admirable physicality, whether standing uncomfortably like an uninvited guest or scrambling to his feet after spending a night asleep on the floor. Stewart, meanwhile, makes a fine falling-down drunk and performs an entertaining double-take that should be familiar to fans who troll YouTube.
Pinter was already an established playwright when he wrote No Man's Land, and it's possible to view Hirst and Spooner as extreme versions of the litterateurs he most feared becoming: Hirst, an éminence grise ''in the last lap of a race I had long forgotten to run'' whose very success has isolated him from the world, or Spooner, a professional failure willing to debase his talents to make ends meet.
In both plays, McKellen and Stewart deliver a master class in acting that seems to echo Beckett and Pinter's underlying theme: the struggle of men against the challenge and inevitability of death. By their age-defying enthusiasm, the seventysomething stars manage the tricky feat of making challenging material engaging, fun, and ultimately life-affirming. The ease of their companionship is almost infectious, elevating these productions to the sublime.
''We are happy,'' McKellen's Estragon tells Stewart's Vladimir at one point during Waiting for Godot. ''What do we do now, now that we're happy?'' Vladimir's immediate response is to resume their vigil for that perpetual no-show of a savior, Godot. But his manner betrays another response, which is not unlike our own: that the contentment we have been seeking is already at hand, standing right in front of us. A–