The increasing and most welcome hum along Broadway in recent weeks grew even stronger last night with the arrival, at the Ritz, of Ian McKellen in the British actor's winningly intimate and highly accomplished solo entertainment devoted to Shakespeare. This superior divertissement is scheduled for five weeks only, so don't waste any time getting there.
This is the informal but skillfully arranged romp McKellen performed here at a Sunday benefit a couple of years ago when he was appearing in "Amadeus" and in which he has appeared all over the map as well as on public television in a taped performance, when he has found himself between new stage or film assignments. If you have fond recollections of the small-screen show, which you watched far removed from the actor and his filmed audience, seeing and hearing the "round" actor, and as a member of his rapt audience, will dim those memories.
The actor, whose stage presence is uncommonly inviting, wears slacks and a loose white shirt, open at the neck, and he begins, almost conversationally, with Jacques' ages-of-man speech from "As You Like It." Threaded through the excerpts from "Hamlet," "Henry V," "Henry VI" and "Romeo and Juliet," along with the 20th sonnet, that are in the first half, are pertinent stage anecdotes, an account of his own career since the acting bug first bit him and, above all, loving references to his idol, the poet who made this evening possible.
The second half opens with a superb delivery of Richard II's sad account of his fate and of all wearers of the "hollow crown," whose sudden eminence and equally quick decline McKellen likens to the fate of star actors. He follows this - always acting, mind you - with astringent comments on plays and players by Pepys and Shaw, an outlandish impersonation of David Garrick in an especially grandiloquent performance, and with a painstaking analysis of Macbeth's "Tomorrow, and tomorrow" soliloquy in which he works all the way from a heavily-accented, Scottish-like delivery by Richard Burbage (the first Macbeth) to his own quiet, defeated reading of the familiar lines.
A bit of Prospero's "stuff as dreams are made on" speech to Ferdinand - again, chosen by McKellen because of its comparison of the characters with actors - in "The Tempest," last of the plays, and then, having taken his curtain calls, a final gesture.
Summoning would-be actors from the audience - perhaps two dozen, mostly young people, joined him - he huddled briefly with them onstage, and quickly used them to represent the dead and wounded at Agincourt for a funny bit in which the Messenger, presenting Henry with a list of the casualties, has handed the imaginary actor a blank sheet, causing him to improvise.
McKellen, whose voice, whether raised or lowered, can be heard clearly throughout the unmiked house, presents us (except for those passages demanding a sweeping vocal thrust) with intimate readings, rich in nuance, in word and in gesture (as I have indicated, he acts out every role, and eloquently), shaped for the relatively small theaters he prefers to play in. He endeavors, whenever possible, to make the verse sound like everyday talk, and he is uncannily successful much of the time. You may quibble with some of his readings - for example, from "Romeo and Juliet," he makes the teenage couple (especially Juliet, of course) sound almost childish - but you will never be less than absorbed and appreciative of the care and reasoning that went into the speeches.
This is a one-man show (bare stage, but for a single armchair) one could happily take in at least once for each of the five weeks.
A solitary actor, a black-curtained stage naked except for one large armchair - the conditions do not appear particularly conducive to theatricality.
Yet the actor is Ian McKellen and he is Acting Shakespeare. Yes, it is another Shakespearen anthology - one recalls, with gratitude, such lectern-time Shakespeare as Gielgud's The Ages of Man, or the RSC's assorted quartet The Hollow Crown.
However, McKellen gives us his Shakespeare with a difference. It is essentially an actor's Shakespeare, and Shakespeare as an actor. McKellen sees actors "Illuminating the art of living," and he notes, not quite in passing, that all of Shakespeare's Kings were actors at heart.
Informality is McKellen's watchword. He enters the auditorium at an unflustered run, bounds on stage wearing an unbuttoned shirt and slacks - tailored for him by Tommy Nutter, Savile Row.
He grins engagingly - his face, more deeply etched than hitherto, is beginning to make him look like a lanky Paul Scofield - and is clearly the young, enthusiastic village curate rather than any high priest of art.
With an almost surreptitious, but reverent, nod to Gielgud, he is off, embarked on Jacques' "Ages of Man" speech from As You Like It. From then on the stage is peopled with Shakespeare and his imagery, McKellen and his humor.
McKellen gave something very like this program for one Broadway performance about three years ago, while he was starring as Salieri in Amadeus. It is still accomplished, brilliant, and at times a little coy. But it has also, in time, deepened in its range and skills.
He tells us stories - all of them old and most of them apocryphal - and resoundingly drops a few histrionic names with old-boyish charm. He situates Shakespeare's grave on the stage, and frequently pays it his obeisances. He wanders occasionally into reminiscence and autobiography.
The evening is full of humor, and McKellen has an impish wit, and a self-mockery that takes the sting out of his over-conscious charm, and sometimes near-patronizing conviviality.
He knows his audience, and plays on it with unaffected affectation - itself a uniquely actorly pose. He quizzes the audience about Shakespeare's views on marriage, how many of them have been to Stratford on Avon, etc., etc. At the end - in an unannounced coda that must not be missed in the struggle for coats and exits - he actually persuades a large part of the audience to join him on stage.
But for all the adulterated charm and professional bonhomie, the key to the evening is whenever (and it is most of the time) McKellen sloughs off his cloak of being a regular fella, and becomes what becomes him most, a consummate Shakespearean.
His excerpts from Richard II and Macbeth go some way in offering New York solace for not having seen him in either role, nor any other Shakespearean play for that matter. But apart from an overly-petulant Juliet, McKellen is arresting throughout.
He has no great voice - a disadvantage he turns to an asset by making a virtue of its singularity - but a mind and heart that work as one, and great eyes that look inward as much as outward. As a result he is at his best in introspective Shakespeare, and in bringing depths to surfaces.
His technique is formidable - he can run from Falstaff to Hal with equal facility, he can make the donkey-snore of Bottom into a serenade, he can storm Agincourt as nimbly as he can explain Crookback's deformities.
But the highspot - the one naughty thunderbolt of intellectual virtuosity - comes when he has the calm nerve, and that nerve had all evening been coming up to this climax, to interpret, line by line, phrase by phrase, thought by thought, image by image, Macbeth's "Tomorrow and tomorrow" speech.
Then he places the speech he has analyzed into the full context of his Macbeth. He starts encased in a cone of light - then he moves forward and strikes Shakespeare to the quick instant.
The thing done - genius ignited - he does a brief, trendy Prospero farewell (revels ending in a holocaust?), his dazzling comic coda, and is off and running through the audience into the night - or, for he is an actor - towards his dressing room. See McKellen act Shakespeare. It is something to savor and recall.
''The more I see his plays and the more I act in them,'' says Ian McKellen, ''the more I love this man.'' The man to whom Mr. McKellen refers is William Shakespeare, and the declaration of love is not loose talk. In his one-man show at the Ritz, this brilliant English actor makes us feel his affection (and our own) for Shakespeare, without ever lapsing into pomposity or sanctimoniousness. Even if ''Ian McKellen Acting Shakespeare'' were not an invigorating display of the actor's craft, it would still be enjoyable as a warm account of a man's lifelong love affair with the theater's greatest poet.
Mr. McKellen has been doing this show for several years now. A few New Yorkers saw ''Acting Shakespeare'' in the form of a one-night benefit, given during Mr. McKellen's run as Salieri in ''Amadeus''; many more have seen a subsequent television version. But the current edition is the best. Limber in mind, body and voice, Mr. McKellen seems more confident and high-spirited than before. He welcomes the audience into the Ritz as if the theater were his living room; he makes the whole house his stage.
The evening begins with the ''seven ages of man'' speech, as if Mr. McKellen were courting comparisons between his own solo turn and John Gielgud's legendary ''Ages of Man'' recital. Not long after that, Mr. McKellen is doing a mischievous and funny impersonation of a howling Gielgud Lear. Yet ''Acting Shakespeare'' soon assumes its own identity. The show is indeed specifically about what Shakespeare means to actors, and about how actors make his words meaningful to audiences.
Though Mr. McKellen gives us a full plate of soliloquies and scenes, many of them culled from his own most celebrated performances, he also gives the excerpts a context. Sometimes that context is historical: he'll imagine Richard Burbage or David Garrick in the roles or impersonate Pepys or Shaw judging the plays. But, just as often, the perspective is personal. We hear about Mr. McKellen's own earliest encounters with Shakespeare, as a spectator and a performer - highlighted by his Cambridge experiences with such fellow undergraduate actors as Trevor Nunn, David Frost and Derek Jacobi.
The evening is also steeped in theatrical lore - the kind of amusing stories (some, no doubt, apocryphal) that actors exchange in pubs. A devilish mimic, Mr. McKellen has particular fun impersonating both the choreographer Robert Helpmann and the actor Donald Wolfit as they exchange views about their respective treatments of ''Hamlet.'' At other times, Mr. McKellen engagingly includes the audience in his informal banter. The house lights are raised so that he can converse directly with us; in a post-curtain call finale, he even solicits volunteers to join him on stage for a merry prank.
Thanks to the evening's anecdotal framework and the actor's charming conviviality, ''Acting Shakespeare'' generally escapes the curse that can afflict one-man shows of this type. The context provided by Mr. McKellen often makes up for the fact that Shakespeare's speeches have been yanked out of their original texts. And sometimes the actor makes new ''plays'' out of his snippets: After performing both Falstaff and Hal in the interview scene of ''Henry IV, Part 1,'' he moves immediately to a touching rendition of Mistress Quickly's epitaph to Falstaff in ''Henry V.''
Though working on a bare stage in street clothes - and with no props - Mr. McKellen can change roles, regardless of age or sex, with quicksilver agility. As Bottom and Falstaff, he seems to grow a bulbous clown's nose on the spot; his voice instantly gains a comic chalkiness. His work within a role can be even more impressive. The tortured souls of Richard II and Hamlet are conveyed so delicately that we can see the characters' conflicted emotions and thoughts do intricate battle within the verse.
Perhaps the grandest set piece is a miniature ''Macbeth'' that forms the show's climax. Standing under a glaring spotlight as intimidating as a police investigator's lamp, Mr. McKellen seems to hollow out as he passes from soliloquy to soliloquy; by the end, he is a spent shell, as dead as the nature that closes in on the protagonist from every side. Watching the actor capture the full nihilistic range of the part in 15 minutes almost eradicates the memory of those embarrassing Macbeths New York has seen in recent seasons.
Mr. McKellen precedes his ''Macbeth'' with a casual classroom lecture in which he takes the ''Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow'' speech apart, from an actor's standpoint, word by word. Well-meaning as the lesson is, it seems overlong and somewhat pedantic. There are a few other sags, too: A lengthy pre-intermission excerpt from ''Romeo and Juliet'' finds the actor too old as the hero and a bit campy as the heroine. It's one of the few occasions when Mr. McKellen self-consciously calls attention to his own technique.
But these are minor quibbles. As strenously as the star works, he is so refreshed by each challenge that, after two and a half hours, he still seems ready to go on all night. Talented as Mr. McKellen is at acting Shakespeare, it's his infectious enthusiasm for that calling that makes his show so special a gift.