Harold Pinter’s “No Man’s Land”—the Nobel Prize-winning writer’s 1975 play, masterfully revived at Steppenwolf—is a rich and strange theater experience. It’s a lush and open-ended play of language in high-modernist style that exists side-by-side with a tense, film-noir atmosphere redolent of despair. Under the skilled direction of Les Waters, the four-man cast extracts a potent combination of humor, suspense and pathos from a script that gives only tantalizing hints about what’s happening, leaving the bulk of the interpretive work to the viewer. There’s no shortage of laughter amid the fractured, self-contained monologues that make up much of this play. But the laughs are of the nervous, tittering variety, and the “jokes” are not so much witty as they are discomfiting and bizarre.
Among dramatists of the twentieth century, Pinter is the great sculptor of mood. The adjective “Pinteresque” is all about a certain ambiance—a gritty realism tinged with sinister weirdness—that’s easier to experience than to describe. Actors and crew deliver that quality here in spades, despite adversity in the form of a last-minute cast change. Theater legend and longtime Steppenwolf ensemble member Austin Pendleton, slated to play the major role of Spooner, dropped out of the show for personal reasons only a week or so before the scheduled opening. Veteran local actor Mark Ulrich has taken his place, and I’m happy to report that the substitution is a seamless one. Ulrich—who is on stage every moment of this two-act, two-hour play—comes off as relaxed and ready, with no visible hitches in blocking or timing.
Spooner is a whiskey poet (or more likely poetaster) with a posh accent and bespoke suit worn thin, who talks about having a country house somewhere where he enjoys a wholesome, bucolic life. Actually, as we learn, he works as a glorified busboy at a London pub when he’s not busy playing Peeping Tom in Hampstead Heath. Like a lost dog, he has been picked up by the aristocratic and apparently artistic Hirst (played by Steppenwolf co-founder Jeff Perry) and taken to his mansion home. There they natter away, grandly and nonsensically, with the glib Spooner doing most of the talking. Meanwhile, the two set about downing Hirst’s store of scotch and vodka as though booze were going out of style.
The two old aesthetes, who wax nostalgic about a more cultured world where poets moved readers “through art to virtue,” are like Vladimir and Estragon in “Waiting for Godot,” if the pair had been English dilettantes rather than French tramps. Their conversation, lofty and lyrical and occasionally pointed, is fun to listen in on, but is curiously lacking in tangible content. It seems mainly a way of killing time, while awaiting something—perhaps their own end, or the world’s.
The pair are joined by Briggs (Jon Hudson Odom) and Foster (Samuel Roukin), Hirst’s much younger servants and possibly bodyguards, whose working-class accents and edgy, in-your-face manner mark them as from a different universe than their elders. Instantly suspicious of Spooner’s intentions, they bristle with barely suppressed menace. It’s as though “Waiting for Godot” had collided with “A Clockwork Orange.” The play turns abruptly darker, as past entanglements among the older characters emerge and the action grinds to a halt. Eventually, the stage begins to seem like the no man’s land of the title, a narrow, purgatorial space situated between life and death.
Narratively opaque but dramatically intense, “No Man’s Land” is very much an actor’s play, a work of subterranean conflict punctuated with unexpected jolts of whimsy and beauty. Perry crowns his nearly half-century Steppenwolf career with this role, precisely conveying both Hirst’s over-protected, gated existence and his fear of mortality, which he tries to ward off through alcohol and a cultivated obliviousness. He gives a stingingly sharp reading of Hirst’s key line: “I am in the last lap of a race I had long forgotten to run.” Ulrich’s Spooner is suitably unctuous and seedy—and also keenly observant, like any competent con man. Roukin’s Foster is all verbal aggression, baiting Spooner viciously while remaining just this side of thuggish. And Odom delivers a slyly funny rendition of Briggs’ classic “Bolsover Street” monologue, the play’s comic highlight. It’s about a labyrinthine London roadway that entraps, frustrates and disorients those who enter it—as does this play.
The real star is Andrew Boyce’s remarkable set, burnished with Yi Zhao’s flat, unmodulated, deliberately artificial lighting. Notably shallow and sparse, its elegant Sheraton table and leather-upholstered wing chairs set off against an expanse of flocked wallpaper, the set looks for all the world like a blown-up version of one of the miniature Thorne Rooms in the Art Institute, a period dollhouse too perfect to be real. The surrealism of the design comes out in Act II, when we realize through back lighting that the set is actually a closed-off, ceilinged box placed within the slightly larger box of the Steppenwolf stage.
The effect reminds us exactly where these people are: in a sealed space, a private hell encased in privilege, indifference, and creeping apathy and amnesia. As with Beckett’s desolate stage or T.S. Eliot’s wasteland, it’s sere, empty and deadened, a place where art and culture come to die and be entombed in stagnant memories of an idealized past. It’s a bleak scenario, perhaps reflecting the playwright’s own unresolvable love-hate relationship with the upper echelon and with success itself, as experienced in a class-bound society.
This thoughtful, beautifully executed production conveys the full dark power of Pinter’s vision, subtly implicating the audience for finding pleasure and humor in the play’s starkly compelling depiction of a corrupt, decaying civilization. Shaking us out of our own passive spectatorial complacency, Pinter gives us a world that ends with neither a bang nor a whimper, but rather a blackout. (Hugh Iglarsh)
Steppenwolf Theatre Company, 1650 North Halsted, (312)335-1650. Steppenwolf.org. $20-$98. Through August 20.