Seated across a table at Sardi's, the two men are a study in contrasts. Sir Patrick Stewart leans back against the banquette, his chin poised upward like the prow of a ship, a posture familiar to anyone who watched Captain Picard invoke "Star Trek: The Next Generation's" version of Siri by intoning, "Computer!" With his smooth scalp gleaming like marble, Stewart's open face beams with the contentment of a Buddhist monk.
His luncheon companion, Sir Ian McKellen, hunches over the table like a question mark, a thicket of hair making a wayward passage over the topographical map of his face. His voice murmurs so low it could conceivably be emanating from Tolkien's Middle Earth, motivating this reporter to nudge the recorder ever closer for fear McKellen won't be heard.
What these two distinguished actors have in common is a dry, ready wit, a century's worth of acting experience and a true offstage bromance — plus starring with some nobody named Hugh Jackman in a series of obscure art-house films about misfit mutants.
Now add to that list two plays performed in repertory on Broadway: Samuel Beckett's classic "tragicomedy" Waiting for Godot and Harold Pinter's riveting No Man's Land. On the surface, the plays seem as different as the two knights. Godot is an absurdist tale of vagrants waiting on an open road for an unknown figure to appear. No Man's Land is set in the upscale London home of a successful poet (Stewart) who is unsettled by the arrival of a failed one (McKellen). But both plays share a richness of language and complexity of character that provide the kind of bravura acting challenges savored by actors and audiences alike.
The plays also provide the rare opportunity for two male actors to share the stage equally. "If there are two leading parts," McKellen explained, "they're likely to be of two genders. You get to work with all the actresses but you don't get to work with all the actors."
So while the two English knights have faced off as onscreen nemeses, over 30 years separated their stage appearances, first in 1977 (when McKellen was a leading man and Stewart a supporting player at the Royal Shakespeare Company) and then a hit run of Godot in London's West End in 2009. For that onstage reunion, they briefly considered switching roles nightly, a notion Stewart described as "a charming idea."
"It was a stupid idea," muttered McKellen.
Stewart continued, not missing a beat. "It was a stupid, charming idea."
McKellen left the decision up to director Sean Mathias, with whom he has a long association. "It's rather shaming," he admitted, "but when I read the play, I couldn't tell the characters apart."
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