We go to a play by Harold Pinter with certain expectations. We expect ambiguity, eloquent silences, language used like a scalpel or to parody literary convention and ordinary use. There won't be a plot, and the action will be puzzling, but it will involve mis- and non-communication between characters and a stifling if inexplicable sense of menace. No Man's Land, written in 1974, is even more mystifying than most Pinter plays. Usually, Pinter's action lacks literal and linear logic, but it does have a kind of emotional clarity, and the implied relationship between characters makes sense on some level.
No Man's Land starts with two men in a room, both apparently poets. The host is Hirst. He seems to have met his guest, Spooner, at the local pub. (Note the words "apparently" and "seems to"; you can mentally add similar qualifiers to all that follows in this review.) The men's stories shift and change, flowing like water into whatever verbal vessel Pinter has prepared. The playwright makes use of all kinds of tropes. Sometimes his words seem lifted from a summer romance or a detective novel; sometimes he echoes Samuel Beckett, Eugene Ionesco or even earlier Pinter. There are sections that are extraordinarily funny.
Spooner is down on his luck, seedy but pretentiously respectable. Hirst is a famed and established writer who relishes his successes. The two jostle for power and precedence. Spooner sucks up to Hirst or undermines him; he is an inappropriately demanding guest. Hirst bullies or accedes. The men appear to inhabit separate verbal universes in which the answer never quite fits the question.
We soon learn that Hirst has two servants; both are surly and as unreadable as their masters. When Hirst finally totters off to bed, Spooner is left to their not-so-tender mercies. But still we're not sure what's happening. Are they threatening him? Later, in the second act, they will seem to threaten Hirst.
The language is evocative and sometimes oddly beautiful. It's often wordier than I expect of Pinter, partly because of the bits and pieces of other genres he introduces. The dialogue ranges from spare to verbose, restrained to vulgarly comic. It communicates a strong sense of the way in which language shapes reality. In one astonishing sequence, words become a prison. Hirst declares that he and Spooner will now "change the subject for the last time." Since the subject has been winter, this means that "spring will never come." Pushing the image to its ultimate conclusion and adding one of those gnomic Pinter twists, Hirst adds, "You'll be here forever. But not alone."
In addition to Beckett's rhythms, Pinter seems to have adopted some of his circularity. No Man's Land is defined by a sense of stasis, and also the implication that that stasis is somehow created by repetition and recurrence. One of the servants, Briggs, comes up with a complex, hilarious riff on how to get to Bolsover Street -- a Kafkaesque endeavor that involves endless one-way streets and maze-like turnings and re-turnings back upon oneself. Perhaps the futile searching of this sequence encapsulates the entire action and meaning of the play. But, then again, perhaps not.
Ultimately, we're left with a handful of questions. What does Spooner want from Hirst, and Hirst from Spooner? Why does Hirst fall to the floor after telling Spooner of a dream in which someone was drowning? Do the servants resent Spooner's entry into the home? Are they protecting Hirst or some scam of their own? Why is Spooner so sanguine when the servants lock him in ("I have known this before")? Or is he?
There's only one moment when two characters are really engaged with each other and the responses fit what has gone before, and that is when the poets discuss their experiences as students at Oxford -- experiences that never actually occurred, since Spooner is lying to accommodate Hirst's delusion. The sequence degenerates into malicious fencing when Spooner claims to have seduced Hirst's wife.
Despite all of this, No Man's Land is anything but cloudy. There's something dizzying and exhilarating about its rarefied atmosphere, its off-kilter rhythms.
The great strength of Ed Baierlein's Germinal Stage production is Baierlein himself in the role of Spooner. It doesn't matter that you can't fathom the man's motivations or core identity; he's just fascinating to watch. Baierlein creates a very specific kind of Englishman, one with an effete accent who carries defeat -- but also a kind of smirking, imperturbable defiance -- in every contour of his body. This is a layered and completely original performance. Unfortunately, the rest of the actors are less precise in their dealings with the text. Material this enigmatic requires great lucidity in performance. Michael Leopard makes a bluff and hearty Hirst. He's compelling and interesting to watch, but I didn't get the sense of an intense life beneath the skin, didn't understand -- even on a sensed and unverbalizable level -- the changes that his character goes through. Step Pearce has a wonderfully cocky physicality as Foster. Michael Shalhoub's Cockney accent is so thick that I had trouble making out the words, though I liked the mysterious glower he brought to the proceedings as Briggs.
Since it was a preview that I saw, the production may have gained in clarity by now. In any case, it's well worth seeing for Baierlein's performance and for Pinter's script.
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