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Land ahoy

Vintage Pinter takes the ART stage
By IRIS FANGER  |  May 3, 2007
Paul Benedict, David Wheeler, Max Wright

Max Wright, who’s cast as Spooner in the American Repertory Theatre revival of Harold Pinter’s No Man’s Land that opens a week from Saturday, remembers seeing the 1975 premiere, which starred John Gielgud and Ralph Richardson. “I thought it was a masterpiece. It was tremendously funny, extremely scary, very much food for conversation. The ambiguities are apparent, but the impact is enormous: the tension, humor, wonderful flights of language.”

Unlike The Birthday Party and The Homecoming, now staples of the repertory, this play by the 2005 Nobel laureate is seldom mounted. (In conjunction with this production, the Harvard Film Archive is screening nine Pinter-scripted films plus a bio-documentary in the series “Harold Pinter: Stage to Screen,” May 13-30; Michael Atkinson’s review will appear in next week’s Phoenix.) Paul Benedict (Waiting for Guffman, TV’s The Jeffersons), who plays Hirst, says of stepping into the shoes of Gielgud and Richardson, “People are afraid, perhaps in the way that batters were afraid for a long time to follow Babe Ruth.”

The action is simple, though the undercurrents are not. The curtain rises on the two elderly men sharing whiskey and conversation in Hirst’s comfortable living room. Hirst has invited Spooner home for a nightcap. Although Spooner claims to be a poet and Hirst is an established writer, nothing is certain about the pair’s past lives. The first act ends when two young men — servants, perhaps, or relatives — burst in and take control.

Act two takes place the next morning, when the confrontations become even more enigmatic. “The suggestion of homosexuality floats throughout the play,” says veteran director David Wheeler, who helms the ART revival. “You don’t have to arrive at a general consensus about what’s happening. That’s the nature of living. It’s a totally artificial game in the theater, when in five minutes a character comes on stage and you know everything about him.”

Wheeler lobbied hard for ART to produce No Man’s Land with this particular cast. Wright (an early ART member, better known as Willie Tanner on TV’s Alf) isn’t sure about everything Spooner says. “It’s like the Talmudic tradition. There are two possibilities. Either he’s telling the truth or he’s not. And if he’s not telling the truth, there are two possibilities. It’s not just because Pinter is Jewish. What can you believe of anything in a world where you only have language to convince someone who you are and what’s important?”

Benedict: “There’s no back story in any of the major Pinter plays. That’s the wonderful attraction we have to fill out. You can pick and choose.”

An added challenge for Wheeler is directing his son, Lewis Wheeler, as one of the younger men. “I was warned about nepotism, but Lewis auditioned and won the role. Watching him grow, I kept saying nasty things to him like, ‘You haven’t done the dark side.’ Then I saw him in A Number at Lyric Stage. I wanted him in the show.”

No Man's Land | American Repertory Theatre | Loeb Drama Center, 64 Brattle St, Cambridge | May 12–June 10 | $29-$76; $15 students | 617.547.8300

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