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."
"Vladimir thinks about life a lot," Stewart explained, referring to the role he plays. "Estragon experiences life." He turned to his co-star. "That's rather good, don't you think?"
"In other words," McKellen replied, "Vladimir's the pretentious one, and Estragon's the down-to-earth one."
Stewart raised his coffee cup, saying, "I'll drink to that."
It was during the 22-week run, while sharing a dressing room that Stewart began the "struggle" to convince McKellen to take on No Man's Land, a play Stewart had longed to do since seeing the original production in 1975. "I had always imagined I would play the flashy role, the one played by John Gielgud," he said, but he came to the sad realization that the part was better suited to McKellen.
"I hope you might mention this come the Tony Awards," Stewart teased, "I have my friend Patrick Stewart to thank, I share this with him... something like that. Well, we'll work on your speech."
The rapid comic banter also reflects what's occurring onstage. McKellen described both plays "as desperately funny," with "moments of high hilarity, ridiculous farce," referencing influences ranging from the Marx Brothers to Monty Python. And Stewart cited the "percussive attitude" of stand-up comics like Chris Rock and Louis CK as having a "distinct impact" on his approach.
Indeed, McKellen said he feels that years of critics twisting themselves into knots to understand the plays' meaning have gotten in the way of the audience's enjoyment. "You don't ask what's the meaning of a Monty Python sketch. It is what is. Just enjoy it. And experience it... Pinter said of Beckett, 'I love him because he not trying to sell me the answers.' And Pinter isn't trying to sell you the answers, either."
"People will see their lives onstage in both plays," Stewart continued. "For where I am in my life now — being 73 and having just got married — they are about how you keep going and what it costs and what it takes to get through a day and into the next day."
The officiant of Stewart's recent wedding to Brooklyn-based singer-songwriter Sunny Ozell was none other than 74-year-old McKellen, who added Universal Life minister to a resume that includes kings, killers and Captain Hook.
"When we look into one another's eyes at the end of the play," Stewart said, "I feel optimistic and positive that we made it one more time." He smiled at McKellen. "And it's great to be doing that with a friend."