Theatre Review of No Man’s Land
No Man’s Land by Harold Pinter at the Cort Theater, New York
Reviewed by Scott Klavan
So how do you do Pinter in a Hunger Games world? How do you get across the subtle and sly interaction, elliptical, repetitive dialogue and nearly impenetrable story lines to an audience used to being spoon-fed blatant, overly explained, plot-driven tales of broad physical action? In a culture where “clarity” is king, does Pinter become a jester without an audience, languishing outside the castle gates, ultimately vanishing into the British woods of obscurity? Well, maybe, but not quite yet. Top-notch theater companies keep presenting Pinter, trying to make him relevant to a contemporary crowd. From the brilliant Gate Theatre production of The Homecoming with Ian Holm, performed in New York in 2001, to the condescending, vulgarized version of Betrayal, directed by Mike Nichols and currently on Broadway, success has been intermittent.
Into this challenging atmosphere come Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart in No Man’s Land, the infrequently produced Pinter from 1975, when John Gielgud and Ralph Richardson triumphed on a Broadway that seems very far removed from our current day. This production, which runs in tandem with Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, featuring the same two leads—along with Billy Crudup and Shuler Hensley—both directed by Sean Mathias, has much to recommend it. McKellen and Stewart are at the high end of the world’s theater actors, handling the difficult language and nearly obscure objectives of the characters with enormous skill, humor and aplomb. McKellen plays Spooner, a self-described poet, teacher and vagabond, now working as a waiter, who insinuates himself into the household of a wealthy, disaffected alcoholic, Hirst, portrayed by Stewart. Spooner’s attempt to win over this shaky titan is complicated by the arrival of two threatening younger men, Foster and Briggs (Crudup and Hensley), who apparently work for the magnate and have their own designs on the man’s affections, influence and, it is assumed, his money.
That’s the plot—and that may not even be the plot, which winds purposely down and around in circles, and after all is only a peg on which to hang Pinter’s many hilarious and sharply cutting speeches and dialogues. The inner life and yearnings of the characters—of all of us—are what is being expressed and explored here; a man’s need to find some kind of permanence in a reality that is forever shifting, day by day, minute by minute, word by word. Are we poets, and so, kings? We sure hope so. Or are we supplicants and ignoramuses, knaves and slaves? Oh, how we hope not. We’d love to be something, anyway. Hirst’s character seems to hold the key, but he is too drunk or lost in his own quest for a perfect memory and past, to link forever to his own “good ghosts,” to help with an answer. We long for that never-changing No Man’s Land, which, when all is revealed, is arid. Is this stasis the Truth, and if so, is the Truth life, or death?
At times the piece, which contains some of his most beautiful writing, does come off as Pinter’s—and Existentialism’s—Greatest Hits. There’s more than a little of The Caretaker here. But the sheer amount of bite, intelligence and verve offset any familiarity.
The director and actors do a terrific job of expressing the themes of the play. And it seems as if that was their goal: to play the dialogue so actively as to take the veil of opacity off of Pinter’s haughtily smart show and reveal its inner workings to a modern, restless, intellectually stolid crowd. And this part of the production works well. We get it, and so remain engaged. Throughout, the two leads and the energetic support team of two manage to get their laughs. (It should be noted that Pinter seemed to be experimenting with his new 1970s freedom of dirty words here: a joke about oral sex brings down the house. It is as if the audience was expressing its relief, saying, “All right, a blow job! Now that I get! The rest of it, I don’t know what the fuck they’re talking about!”) McKellen is loose and relaxed, yet gives off the need of a struggling, wily man willing to put up with the right amount of debasement, just enough humiliation to survive. Stewart beautifully displays the proper, superior millionaire, turned suddenly into the maudlin drunken wastrel, making a halting and anguished search for the perfect past, his best self. As Foster, Crudup gives a flashy look-at-me performance, but has the chops to pull it off; Hensley, a large and threatening presence as Briggs, is genuine and adroit.
Where the production falters is in its emotional underpinning, which is slight, and in its soft dramatic build. A show can’t do everything, and this one gets a lot of tough stuff right. But as its two leads are good great actors (as opposed to great great actors like Gielgud and Richardson) the show is a good great show. We don’t feel the humanity beneath the facile wordplay, the true pain of our failed search to permanently fix our identity, our status, a solid sense of our place in life. Hirst’s connection to his photos, Briggs’s disappointment in having his letter to a newspaper ignored, and other expressions of loss remain dry. The story, such as it is, stays on a flat plain and Spooner’s final fervent plea for acceptance by Hirst, which on the page is desperate and haunting, falls into a tonal sameness–a repetition Pinter seemingly didn’t intend.
It is as if the actors and their director spent so much time trying to clarify Pinter’s linguistic intentions, that some important things—like feeling and active, involving drama—were, if not forgotten, then minimized. Perhaps, it is here that, despite our best theater people’s best attempt, the requirements and pressures of modern culture win, where The Hunger Games shoots its arrow through Pinter’s heart.
Scott Klavan, who will be joining us at Escape Into Life as a theatre writer, is as actor and playwright in New York City. He has performed on Broadway in Irena’s Vow with Tovah Feldshuh, and in many off-Broadway and regional productions. He adapted Raymond Carver’s classic short story “Cathedral” for the stage, and it was produced off-Broadway by Theater by the Blind (TBTB, now Theater Breaking Through Barriers). His play Double Murder was published in Best American Short Plays of 2006-2007 by Applause Books. For twenty years, Scott was Script and Story Analyst for the legendary actors Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward. Scott attended a preview performance of No Man’s Land, by Harold Pinter at the Cort Theater, after a run in August at Berkeley Rep. No Man’s Land will run in repertory through March 2, 2014, with Waiting for Godot, by Samuel Beckett, at the Cort Theater, 138 West 48th Street, New York, NY. For more information, visit the Two Plays in Rep website.