To Sirs with love: Pinpointing Pinter at Berkeley Rep

No Man's Land 1
Ian McKellen (left) is Spooner and Patrick Stewart is Hirst in Harold Pinter’s No Man’s Land at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Roda Theatre. Below: Shuler Hensley (left) is Briggs and Billy Crudup is Foster, the two men who are running Hirst’s life for him. Photos courtesy of

What pure theatrical pleasure it is to spend two hours in the baffling world of playwright Harold Pinter with Sir Ian McKellen and Sir Patrick Stewart as our guides. These two fascinating craftsmen, under the direction of the equally astute Sean Mathias, are a show unto themselves in the choices they make, the characters they draw and the relationships they forge with each other and with the audience. No Man’s Land may be about some sort of limbo between the vibrancy of youth and the incapacity of old age (or, more simply, between living life and just waiting for death), but in truth, it’s a masterful workshop in which gifted thespians practice their craft.

Pinter’s play itself is an enigma (as so many Pinter plays seem to be). What is actually going on? Well, two older gentlemen, Hirst (Stewart) and Spooner (McKellen) have met at a pub near London’s Hampstead Heath and have returned to Hirst’s well-appointed home for a few (dozen) nightcaps. From appearances, which is all we have to go on for a while, it would seem the men are from different worlds. Hirst is immaculately turned out in a well-tailored suit and tie. Spooner, on the other hand, is a vision of shabbiness. His striped suit is ill fitting, his shirt cuffs are frayed, he’s wearing cheap sneakers and his socks are filthy. Could Spooner be homeless? Yes he could. But he has a certain dignity about him and an ability to create an illusion of educated entitlement that doesn’t make him seem totally out of place in the sparsely furnished room of Hirst’s manse (the note-perfect set and costume designs are by Stephen Brimson Lewis).

The two men drink and talk – well, Spooner does most of the talking – and the mystery just intensifies as they consume whiskey, or “the great malt which wounds.” Spooner brags that he’s a great man of “intelligence and perception” and to prove it, he is constantly fishing pencils out of his coat pocket and punctuating and underlining the air.

When Hirst does talk, his words carry weight. “Tonight, my friend, you find me in the last lap of a race I had long forgotten to run,” he says. To which, Spooner responds: “A metaphor. Things are looking up.” There’s an uneasy darkness in this play, but also sparks of humor.

Hirst grunts a great deal and withdraws into a state of near immobility. Could be the drink or perhaps a more nefarious condition. At one point, Hirst is on the ground and manages to crawl out of the room. “I’ve seen that before,” Spooner says. “The exit through the door by way of belly on floor.”

No Man's Land 2

Spooner is alone and awkward for a bit until we meet Hirst’s henchmen, Foster (Billy Crudup) and Briggs (Shuler Hensley). Foster claims to be Hirst’s son, but there’s no real confirmation of that. Then he says he’s Hirst’s secretary. Briggs is sort of a bodyguard/man Friday, but then again, he and Foster may be con men or criminals taking advantage of Hirst’s elevated state (he’s apparently a revered man of letters with enough money to merit a meeting with a financial adviser). Or they may really be taking care of Hirst as he slides into oblivion.

Nothing is for sure in this world other than Hirst’s curved drawing room looks like a mausoleum, Hirst himself is dealing with something resembling dementia and Spooner is looking for a way to improve his sorry lot in later life.

What is certain is that these for actors and director Mathias have delved deep into the play and found a way to make it come across as a slice of off-kilter life. You don’t have to know what’s going on or what’s real or true to appreciate that these four characters have layers and connections and interesting relationships with life (and each other).

There’s a scene in Act 2 with Stewart and McKellen at the breakfast table that is so beguiling, so full of a shared past that may be completely invented, that your jaw just drops in awe. Not even the arrival of paramedics to deal with a medical emergency in the rear of the orchestra on opening night could divert the audience’s attention away from the stage.

Stewart rages and suffers and struts, but McKellen walks away with the play. His Spooner is so finely tuned, so sharply etched it’s hard to watch anyone else on stage. And he’s funny, hilarious really, in ways that call to mind great comics of the silent era (Chaplin, Keaton, Lloyd). Watch him pouring a whiskey for Hirst while juggling his own glass and the bottle. Or swooping down to tie his ratty shoelaces. But there’s also, under the posturing and the comic flourishes, something so desperate, so despairing in Spooner. There’s a lot of beautiful language in No Man’s Land, and McKellen, even more than any of his superb co-stars, lifts it to lyrical, meaningful heights. “No man’s land, which never moves, which never changes, which never grows older, which remains forever icy and silent,” Spooner says. Beautiful, abstract, poetic.

After Berkeley, No Man’s Land heads to Broadway, where it will join Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot with the same four actors in rotating rep. On some days, you’ll be able to see both plays – hard to imagine a more joyously mind-blowing theatrical experience than that. Pinter, Beckett, Stewart and McKellen. As Hirst says at the end of the play, “I’ll drink to that.”

[bonus interview]
I sat down with Sir Ian McKellen and Sir Patrick Stewart during a rehearsal break at Berkeley Rep. Read about it here.

Harold Pinter’s No Man’s Land continues through Aug. 31 in Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Roda Theatre, 2015 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $50-$135 (subject to change). Call 510-647-2949 or visit Good luck getting tickets.

Goode shines Light, Frankenstein lives

Young Frankenstein

Shuler Hensley (left) is the Monster and Roger Bart is Dr. Frederick Frankensein in the national tour of Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein at the Golden Gate Theatre. Photo by Paul Kolnik

If you need proof of how lively and diverse the San Francisco theater scene can be, let me direct your attention to two wildly different shows I’ve seen recently. One is about as old fashioned as it gets, while the other is wonderfully experimental.

For sheer retro-musical theater pleasures, Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein – at the Golden Gate Theatre until July 25 – is a prime example of Grade B goods. There was a time on Broadway – think the 1950s and early ’60s – when these kinds of shows populated the Great White Way. Taking the term “musical comedy” to heart, these shows have no objective other than to please its audience for a couple of hours. A few laughs, a few hummable tunes, and we’re done.

With The Producers Brooks fulfilled a lifelong passion to create a musical theater blockbuster. Now Brooks is settling into his groove with Young Frankenstein, an extremely faithful version of his classic 1974 movie (co-written with star Gene Wilder). As a recycler of his own material, Brooks sticks to the formula that worked for the movie and supplies songs that, while not as catchy as those in The Producers, are appealing.

The loosey-goosey feel of the entire production, directed and choreographed by Susan Stroman, Brooks’ partner on The Producers, means that the actors are free to ham it up as much as they want. Star Roger Bart, of the original Broadway production, takes that notion to heart and is hammy and winky-wink to the audience as I imagine Ray Bolger might have been back in the day.

Shuler Hensley (another conquering hero from the Broadway production) as the monster doesn’t have the freedom to yuk it up, but he’s big and green and funny, especially when performing Irving Berlin’s “Puttin’ on the Ritz.” Brad Oscar goes to town as the blind man visited by the monster and squeezes every possible laugh in a role originated on film by none other than Gene Hackman.

Young Frankenstein does not breathe new life into musical theater, nor does it electrify on its own merits. But it is a generally pleasing, vintage-feeling show that makes audiences happy.

Traveling Light

A few blocks away from the Golden Gate, local dance world star Joe Goode and his Joe Goode Performance Group are reviving a fascinating show that combines dance, theater, song, spoken word and art installation.

Traveling Light roams the echoing halls and chambers of the Old Mint, once a thriving center of big money and now a historic footnote waiting to be restored and revived. In the meantime, Goode and his company are the best thing to hit the Mint since gold bullion.

The audience is split into four groups to view the quartet of scenes that take place in different parts of the building. At the end of each segment, a guide takes you quickly to where the next tableaux unfurls. It’s all expertly handled, and the excitement of experiencing such a perfectly orchestrated musing on the meaning of money and value burbles throughout the show’s entire 90 minutes or so.

Mention must be made of Jack Carpenter’s lighting, which is a show unto itself – not that it distracts from the performances or calls too much attention to itself. It’s just so exquisite that I found myself wanting to watch the show again just to watch the shifting lights and shadows, especially in the segment that takes place in a courtyard that makes you feel like you’re in Ancient Rome.

Joe Goode’s Traveling Light is a must see for so many reasons – it’s bold, beautiful, impeccably produced and highly original. And you just can’t see it anywhere else.


Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein continues through July 25 at the Golden Gate Theatre, 1 Taylor St., San Francisco. Tickets are $30-$99. Call (415) 512 7770 or visit

Joe Goode Performance Group’s Traveling Light continues through Aug. 1 at the Old Mint, 88 Fifth St., San Francisco. Tickets are $34-$44. Please note: there are additional 10pm shows on Fridays and Saturdays. Call (415) 561-6565 or visit