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Harold Pinter’s No Man’s Land is a 38-year-old Rubik’s Cube covered in Rorschach blots, a confounding examination of memory and masculinity that resists easy interpretation like an Aikido master shrugging off an unwanted bear hug. Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart—-Magneto and Professor X themselves!—-are set to appear opposite each other in the play’s two main roles on Broadway later this year. And you need, uh, magnetic actors to play the work’s hard-drinking, 60-something men of letters, Hirst and Spooner, who spend so much of their stage time sitting still. It takes actors with deft touches to find the little pools of humanity in these roles while resisting the impulse toward embroidery. Like Bob Dylan songs or David Lynch films, Pinter plays are eloquent and complete in their private language. Attempts at decoding only diminish them.
WSC Avant Bard’s new production is a sort of clash of the titans, too: Brian Hemmingsen and Christopher Henley, both former artistic directors of the 23-year-old company, play Hirst and Spooner, under the direction of Tom Prewitt, the company’s current chief, to whom Henley passed the baton earlier this year. Henley’s jaundiced wriggling and Hemmingsen’s sleeping-giant reserves of anger make for a volatile cocktail. The pleasure of watching them square off against one another is more than adequate incentive to wrestle with the play’s mysteries.
As for the play’s plot: They drink. I don’t know what substance is standing in for whiskey, but Hemmingsen is made to pour so much of it down his gullet it’s a wonder the two-hour show has only a single intermission. Hirst and Spooner’s innuendo-soaked exchanges initially suggest an imminent coupling, but that soon gives way to reminiscences about a long-ago rivalry, one that may or may not have happened. Hirst claims to have carried on an affair with Spooner’s wife; Spooner fires back with a condemnation of Hirst’s “insane and corrosive sexual absolutism,” which I think is more politely referred to as monogamy.
Eventually, Hirst’s two attendants arrive. They’re his butler and secretary, apparently, but Frank Britton and Bruce Alan Rauscher play them like legbreakers. Even the champagne breakfast Rauscher serves to Spooner seems menacing.
This house is a character, too. Set designer Steven T. Royal Jr. has exploded Pinter’s simple description (“A large room in a house in North West London”), giving us a library sparsely furnished with books but lavishly appointed with empty and rapidly emptying liquor bottles, on the floor and on every flat surface. Lamps, too, are plentiful, and positioned around the room with the illusion of carelessness. There’s a train-tunnel arch extending over the stage; whether this is intended to convey the Modernist vibe of the prosperous Hirst’s home or something else remains, like so much of what transpires beneath it, opaque.
The world premiere production of No Man’s Land, in 1975, starred John Gielgud and Ralph Richardson, who 20 years earlier had appeared regularly together as Sherlock Holmes and John Watson on the BBC’s Adventures of Sherlock Holmes radio series. I sometimes half-listen to those old Sherlock Holmes episodes on my iPod at night as I’m trying to go to sleep. They’re as comforting and familiar and No Man’s Land is disquieting and alien. But Henley and Hemmingsen honor that disquiet with their rich, controlled performances.
The play runs through May 25 at Theatre on the Run, 3700 S. Four Mile Run Drive.
This review originally misidentified the production’s set designer.