The paired productions of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot and Harold Pinter’s No Man’s Land, currently on Broadway, offer the rare treat of seeing two 20th-century classics back to back in repertory, and the opportunity to see Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart give virtuoso displays of their considerable theatrical skills. The knighted English actors, of course, started their careers on the stage, long before they became international screen stars, best known, respectively, for the Lord of the Rings and Star Trek franchises, and, together, for their characters with super powers in the X-Men series. On Broadway, Sir Ian is collaborating with Sean Mathias, the Welsh-born director, with whom he’s enjoyed a personal, artistic, and professional relationship for over three decades. I recently talked to the actor and director about their long-term friendship, and about the two plays at the Cort Theatre.
Harold Pinter (#1–10 of 5)
Some playwrights can both bruise and massage your soul, and if Edward Albee and Harold Pinter lead the category of writers whose whipcracking vigor can feel punishing at times, David Adjmi, whose play 3C is currently on view at Rattlestick Playwrights Theater, also belongs to that group. His mixing of realism and absurdity evokes Albee, but kicked into a higher gear, where moods and emotions swerve wildly. Adjmi keeps his audience on its toes by constantly demonstrating how hysterical laughter can signal trauma, and cool civility hide cruel bigotry.
Adjmi’s last play, Elective Affinities, was a one-woman show staged inside a parlor of an Upper East Side mansion. Interviewed by The House Next Door, Adjmi said he was attracted to the play’s character, Alice Hauptmann, because she was an outsider, even though, with her WASP background, she didn’t seem like one. Appearances were also important to Adjmi’s first play, Stunning, about whose characters he said in The New York Times: “They try to create this hard wall of surface to suffice for their wounds—personal wounds, cultural wounds, historical wounds.”
Audiences accustomed to thinking of a Pinteresque evening as family members getting at each other’s throats, unleashing hidden spite and anger, may be surprised by the current Theatre Royal Bath Productions incarnation of The Caretaker. The play speaks in quieter tones, its muted pitch matched by the stage setting, in which grays and browns, ochres and tarnished beiges predominate. That isn’t to say that there’s no slow-burning rage or testosterone in evidence. In Harold Pinter’s work, emotional violence is always only a note away; it may emerge suddenly, in what you may otherwise see as a casual conversation, or idle joking. A fatal mistake, as this play illustrates.
Edward Albee’s artistic dominion lies somewhere between the bruising psychological dramas of Eugene O’Neill and the films of Ingmar Bergman, and the absurdist theater of Samuel Beckett and Harold Pinter. For over 50 years he’s proved his staying power as a playwright, at times forced to defend his work against acrimonious critics or puzzled audiences. His comeback production of Three Tall Women in 1994 won him his third Pulitzer; he had written it after his mother’s death, and had stated in its introduction that, although they “had managed to make each other very unhappy,” he was proud to have translated a “fact into fiction,” without “the distortive folly of ’interpretation.’” And yet, the play, as any of his works, wasn’t a simple matter of fact-taking. It revolved around the question of consciousness: the limitations of what and how we know; the epistemic value of one’s life; the pleasures and consolations, if any, that we may derive from it. “My adoptive mother,” Albee wrote in the intro, “whom I knew from my infancy…and who, perhaps, knew me as well. Perhaps.”
The most striking thing about Carnage, Roman Polanski’s adaptation of Yazmin Reza’s stiff but satisfying stage play God of Carnage, is how much funnier it is than its source material. Polanski, who co-adapted the film’s screenplay with Reza, emphasizes the absurd nature of Reza’s blackly comic moral play. His leavening of God of Carnage’s bleak sense of humor is apparent just from the way that he replaced loutish but menacing James Gandolfini with patently non-threatening John C. Reilly in the role of Michael, one of God of Carnage’s four main characters. In Polanski’s hands, what was once a brooding Pinter-esque update of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is now more like a broad comedy. Except instead of sitcom-style humor you get jokes indiscriminately lobbed at the expense of four ethically bankrupt petit bourgeois know-nothings. And these are the film’s only protagonists!