When Harold Pinter was too sick to read his poetry at a benefit, he asked Julian Sands to sub for him. He also demanded that the finely tuned British actor prepare by taking an extended master class with the master himself. Not surprisingly, Sands was thrilled.

Now, Sands shares just how thrilling it was in "The Celebration of Harold Pinter." For his New York stage debut, Sands has been oddly booked into a 60-seat space in the cellar of the Irish Repertory Theatre, though he isn't Irish and neither was the Nobel-winning playwright, who died of esophageal cancer at 78 in 2008. John Malkovich, who co-starred with Sands in "The Killing Fields" and directed this justly celebrated solo for the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2011, isn't Irish, either.

But the unlikely place offers a luxuriously intimate way to commune with the master of human mysteries, as channeled with affection, humor and insight through Sands. When he isn't sharing Pinter's little-known poetry, he touches on the playwright's thoughts and writings about art, truth, politics and his love for his second wife, writer-historian Antonia Fraser.

But it is those direct quotations, growled in Pinter's giant male voice, that make Sands appear likely to jump out of his own nervous system and bounce off the suddenly vibrant walls. The engagement, scheduled to conclude Nov. 4, has just been extended to Nov. 25.

WHAT "A Celebration of Harold Pinter"

WHERE Irish Repertory Theatre, 132 W. 22nd St.

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INFO $30; 212-727-2737; irishrep.org.

BOTTOM LINE Small but thrilling