Audiences to No Man's Land at Berkeley Rep who seek classic Harold Pinter themes and devices in this later of his dramas, from 1975, will be disappointed. Sure, as with most of the absurdist playwright's work, responses here rarely proceed logically from what they follow. Characters expound at length on tangents, trifles, and outright nonsense while others onstage stare off silently, blankly, unhearing. They're also deeply unreliable, relaying only a kernel or two of truth throughout the play, but they often agree upon their lies, imagining and riffing to conjure a new reality.
Yet this production, under the unfocused direction of Sean Mathias, lacks the secret Pinter sauce that makes all these other ingredients cohere and pique: menace. There's a need for an insidious outside force that seeps in and threatens to obliterate the rules of civility, creating constant suspense in whether characters will be able to uphold those rules, or a semblance of them, from moment to moment, or whether the rules will change -- or disintegrate.
Of course, because Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart star in this sold-out, Broadway-bound production, whether it brings Pinterian dynamics to full, rich life might not be the question everyone has on his or her mind. Billy Crudup and Shuler Hensley, stars in their own right, are the supporting cast.
The script is an excellent vehicle for McKellen's decades of craftsmanship. When Spooner (McKellen), a poet (or so he says), enters Stephen Brimson Lewis's set, a sleek sitting room stretched into an icy blue semi-oval and dotted with a few naturalistic details -- it looks both plausible and like the inside of a UFO -- he is clearly out of place. He wears a floppy striped suit, pockets overstuffed, an important button perilously undone, lapels out of place, along with canvas sneakers long discolored, one untied (the evocative costumes are also by Lewis).
McKellen makes Spooner as floppy as his suit. He and Hirst (Stewart), already sauced from the pub, are further availing themselves of Hirst's own bar, and McKellen shows the alcohol's pickling effects tendon by tendon. Minutes into the scene, he seems to be floating in a briny jar.
All this is in stark contrast with Spooner's speech; McKellen recites his character's rambling passages with the elocution of a seasoned Shakespearean (which, of course, McKellen is), trilling his R's and plumbing Pinter's text for line readings that are fresh and juicy, yet plain and natural. Even if Spooner's not a poet (and that's one of the most plausible things he says), McKellen elevates his slurred speech to practiced verse: As a writer, even if he is, as he himself declares, a man of uncommon intelligence, imagination, and perception, he is doomed not to be taken seriously -- by his own design.
Spooner and Hirst's relationship is unclear for most of the first act, though it eventually becomes apparent that they met each other only that evening, with Spooner probably worming his way into Hirst's home (and bar) through an onslaught of verbal pyrotechnics, to which Stewart's Hirst initially responds only with disconnected silence, never taking the logical step to kick the raving stranger out. Stewart's performance is much more declarative than his partner's -- even brooding silently, Stewart seems to be asserting that he's brooding silently, as if playing to a much larger crowd. Only in the play's most antic bits does this style pay off.
There is far too little comedy, though, and McKellen's precise choices and unflagging commitment cannot alone make drama; he is too often doltishly stared at, mostly by Hirst's lackeys, played by Hensley and Crudup, but also by Hirst. In this production, there is no broad societal threat behind characters' urges to blather on; there is only a benign nothing. Against that nothing, characters attempt to build meaning together, creating shared memories, but each false connection matters only in the instant it's uttered. Afterward, they suffer the fate of the production as a whole: They are good ideas that can't seem to land.
No Man's Land continues through Aug. 31 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, 2015 Addison St., Berkeley. TIckets are $50-$135; call (510) 647-2949 or visit berkeleyrep.org.