Monday, May 28, 2007

Nowhere man

Max Wright and Paul Benedict in Harold Pinter's No Man's Land.

Harold Pinter's No Man's Land opens with the promise of a night cap, but soon devolves into something like a recap - of the playwright's career. The play, which drifts through a kind of personal witching hour and beyond, is notorious for morphing before its audience's eyes. Hirst, a respected author (rather like Pinter) has lured Spooner, a rather sketchy one (again, like Pinter?), into his elegant tomb of a living room - but what their relationship is, and what Hirst's (and Spooner's) intentions toward each other are, remain in constant flux. Are they, indeed, old college friends? Or perfect strangers? Possible lovers - or mutual cuckolds? The introduction of two more ciphers - one a thug and one a poof - adds little clarity to the proceedings, although hints of a standard Pinter power game begin to be gamely floated. Are these interlopers servants of Hirst? Or his abductors? Or his killers? Or are the two doppelgangers intended as mirrors of the first? And is this all happening within one of the protagonists's minds? Or in both? Or, for that matter, have the participants passed on (has Hirst been literally hearsed?) and are we now at some late-night happy hour in Hell?

The problem with No Man's Land, alas, is that not only does its ultimate "meaning" remain tantalizingly submerged, but its uninterpretibility often feels like a gambit to disguise its incoherence. The play is "meta-Pinter" I suppose, in that the audience is corralled into the same position as the characters in so much of this writer's work - the shifts in context seem aimed at us rather than them (the folks on stage take everything in their stride). This may be a defensible extremity of Pinter's style, but I'm not convinced of the work's greatness - and find it telling that it's the next-to-last of his major plays (only one full-length drama, Betrayal, would follow). Is No Man's Land a kind of Tempest for Pinter, the way that, say, Ohio Impromptu was for Beckett? Or is it more a thing of patches, if not shreds, stitched together from abandoned scenes and sketches?

I lean toward the latter interpretation (after all, even Spooner notes the familiarity of certain tropes), with the proviso that as Pinter's techniques and concerns were deep but limited, the resulting crazy quilt does occasionally hang together. Clearly, star power could put the play over, as in its debut, which featured Ralph Richardson and John Gielgud as Hirst and Spooner - only said wattage is precisely what is lacking at the ART, where we have to make do with Paul Benedict and Max Wright in the same roles. It would of course be wrong to write off these actors due to their sitcom work (in such hits as The Jeffersons and ALF); still, it's almost impossible to overlook the fact that both are miscast. Benedict in particular lacks the necessary touch of madness that Richardson could insinuate beneath his magisterial manner, while Wright is simply too lovable to suggest the conniving underside of Spooner. Under David Wheeler's thoughtful direction, they both contribute carefully worked-out performances - but nevertheless skate right over the depths they think they're limning.

As latecomers Foster and Briggs, Henry David Clarke and Lewis D. Wheeler (at left) bring more of the right kind of energy to the party - although Clarke's swish didn't have quite the malevolent snap required. Lewis D. Wheeler, however, the son of director Wheeler, more than justified his father's decision to cast him. Nastily natty, with shaved head and a shiny suit that exactly matched the set (costumer David Reynoso was perhaps more on top of the play than the cast), Wheeler brought a precise accent and attitude to bear on the role, with satisfyingly malicious results. For threat is essential to Pinter - his signature twist on the Theater of the Absurd was to perceive that a godless universe might as well be hostile. With this handsomely appointed but empty production, Wheeler and the ART seem to have forgotten that Hirst and Spooner may be in their cups, but Pinter is always out for blood.

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