The mesmerizing effect of Harold Pinter’s “No Man’s Land” rests in the irresistible pull of an audience trying to wrap its mind around an ever-evolving understanding of what is happening onstage. In “Waiting for Godot,” the yearning for narrative sense and significance is soon abandoned in Beckett’s stark cosmos; here, however, Pinter tantalizingly doles out hope that clarity — or something like it — is right around the London corner. Or the next. Or the one after that.
After all, it’s such a civilized setting, this handsome, either half-empty or half-full tomb of an English study, grandly though sparingly designed by J. Michael Griggs and lit with just the right amount of ambiguous ambiance by Kenneth Helvig. Characters dress in suits, drink Scotch and talk of poetry, purpose and the past. But this theatrical no man’s — and, in this case, no woman’s — land is a mine field filled with the tension of potential emotional explosions.
It also requires fancy footwork for a production to keep everyone alert and engaged. An audience could easily drift away — or feel as elegantly entrapped as the characters onstage — as things become more and more refracted in the maze of mystery and contradictions.
So it behooves both audience and production to simply relax and allow a pair of deliciously inventive yet precise actors to find their own way through the elliptical script with its own secret sense.
A.R.T.’s stylish, solid production under old Pinter hand David Wheeler has a pair of splendid vets in the lead roles: a cool, almost in-control Paul Benedict as Hirst, the master of the house and of the fate of his disheveled, garrulous guest Spooner, a down-at-the-heels writer played with desperate delight by beret-sporting Max Wright.
Hirst is a wealthy writer tended by two young manservants, played with appropriate upwardly mobile menace and solicitation by helmer’s son Lewis D. Wheeler (skin-headed Briggs) and Henry David Clarke (Foster), both giving spot-on perfs.
But are the younger men a reflection of the older pair with their own weird dynamic? Or is it all one closeted gay scene? (After all, this is the ’70s, when erotic language was coded and loaded.) Or perhaps it’s a not-so-simple meditation on memory, death or cricket? Maybe the entire play is happening in the mind of whisky-swilling, frequently dazed and disabled Hirst? Or perhaps it’s just Pinter’s mental labyrinth?
“Nothing else will happen forever,” says Foster at one point of the play.
But if all that remains are two perfs (make that four) as deliciously etched as these, then it could be a land of infinite and maddening pleasures.