Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart, lifelong staples of the British theater, have become famous -- rock-star famous -- as characters in Hollywood blockbusters. In a lovely turn of karmic payback, the men are extending their pop-culture magnetism to the altogether unlikely but dazzling masters of 20th century drama Samuel Beckett and Harold Pinter.
And what a treat this is. Both actors, neither one immune to the lure of excess showmanship, are terrific -- stylish, disciplined, strikingly different -- in Sean Mathias' repertory stagings of Beckett's familiar 1953 masterwork, "Waiting for Godot," and Pinter's more rare, chilling and opaque "No Man's Land."
McKellen has a flashier physical role than does Stewart in Pinter's 1975 power play about Hirst, a successful alcoholic writer (Stewart, almost unrecognizable with his shaved head covered with a blond toupee). He has brought a seedy gadfly poet (McKellen) named Spooner home to his handsome, sparsely furnished house with the well-stocked liquor cabinet. They may have known each other at Oxford, or maybe not. In fact, the poet -- if, indeed, he is a poet -- may, or may not, have had an affair with the host's wife, taking "simply that portion of herself all women keep in reserve for a rainy day."
Unlike the more conventional "Betrayal" starring Daniel Craig and Rachel Weisz, this is the Pinter of malevolent non sequiturs and the silken menace of unstated violence. People say nothing or speak in long, florid, luscious riffs as they scratch beneath the aging surface of civilized men.
Stewart's Hirst alternates impressively between befuddlement and arrogance, while McKellen's Spooner is a foxy fellow slowly realizing that he is a prisoner of the class he's trying to crash. Billy Crudup and Shuler Hensley -- essential supporting players in both works -- are deliciously, maliciously dry as dangerous underlings jockeying for position.
I prefer my "Godot" to be more of a lean intellectual vaudeville than this antic production, but little matter. This one, with more song-and-dance clowning, is also true to tradition of these existential tramps waiting for a Godot who never comes. More puzzling is the set (sets and costumes for both plays are by the versatile Stephen Brimson Lewis). Instead of Beckett's demands for just a tree and a country road, there are broken building facades that suggest crumbling urban ruin.
Still, McKellen makes a desperately, poignantly crotchety Estragon, who gets beaten daily by strangers for no reason. Stewart makes a strong contrast as an unusually hearty, dapper and pathetically optimistic Vladimir, the philosopher in urinary distress. Hensley and, especially, Crudup seemed more natural in Pinter than in the outrageous physical comedy of master Pozzo (with a Texas accent) and slave Lucky.
The men, gloriously, fill the boredom and the suffering with amusing routines and desperate thoughts -- you know, just like life. As Estragon says, "Maybe this will give us the impression we exist." With Pinter as well as Beckett, they certainly do.
IF YOU GO:
WHAT: "Waiting for Godot" and "No Man's Land"
WHERE: Cort Theatre, 138 W. 48th St.
INFO: $40-$137; 212-239-6200; twoplaysinrep.com
BOTTOM LINE: Dazzling McKellen and Stewart, also Beckett and Pinter