NO MAN’S LAND: This knowing production touches the heart more than it baffles the head.
Hamlet’s “undiscovered country” is the subject of Nobel laureate Harold Pinter’s No Man’s Land (presented by American Repertory Theatre at the Loeb Drama Center through June 10). It’s territory that has defied critical charting since 1975, when the play premiered starring British theater royalty Sir Ralph Richardson and Sir John Gielgud. But lo and behold, octogenarian director David Wheeler, who helms the ART revival, has come up with a map. You can’t stab a pushpin into each moment and say what it’s about, as the play’s two old literati, awash in drink and perhaps looking toward some common shore of memory, hold forth with elusive precision on past, present, and pretense, each with one foot over the grave, the other exploring the rigid, mortality-limning purgatory of the title, “which never moves, which never changes, which never grows older, but which remains forever, icy and silent.” But Wheeler’s knowing production — in which Max Wright’s scrofulous old Spooner offers himself to as much as he forces himself upon the memory-haunted Hirst — touches the heart more than it baffles the head.
It is undeniable, however, that, along with its large thespian shoes to fill, the play’s ambiguity has caused it to sit on the shelf. If I had a nickel for every production of The Homecoming or Betrayal I’d seen, I’d be jingling. But this is my first experience of the perversely morphing, exquisitely written No Man’s Land. The curtain opens on two elderly men in an opulent drawing room — at ART a posh parlor on steroids, its expensive furnishings dwarfed by a towering set that, when the back curtains are opened, looks out on the frigid blankness of the title territory. Hirst, an eminent writer “past my best now,” has picked up Spooner in a pub and brought the seedy, threadbare old patch of a guy, who claims a connection to poetry and whom Hirst may or may not know, home for a nightcap. Hirst, though a man of words, doesn’t say much. But he is the more pained of the two, an idyllic past glued into an album with whose benevolent ghosts he confers, unsure of their existence in either past or present. Spooner’s memories, on the other hand, seem made up out of whole cloth — albeit a richly embroidered fabric Hirst is eager to grab hold of. Eventually two threatening younger men, the smug Foster and the tougher Briggs, turn up. As in the Pinter-penned screenplay The Servant, they appear to be employees who wag their master — though they also wait on him. The gabby, down-at-heels Spooner, for his part, knows a soft bed when he sees it and is eager to insinuate himself into their position — whatever it is.