Christopher Plummer and Jason Robards are the draw in the Roundabout’s elegant revival of Harold Pinter’s study of two aging writers, one prosperous, the other a foolish but ennobled failure. They’re a remarkable pair to watch wrangling with Pinter’s elliptical, often uncrackable script. As it happens, Plummer emerges triumphant, while Robards seems utterly at sea.
True to Pinter form, the dapper Hirst (Robards) and the rumpled Spooner (Plummer) seem to be old chums one minute, wary strangers the next. Which aspect is to believed is a matter for audiences to determine.
At the opening, Hirst has apparently picked up Spooner at a bar and brought him home for late night conversation and drink, though Spooner does most of the talking and Hirst most of the drinking. Scene takes a sinister turn with the arrival of Hirst’s servants, Foster (Tom Wood) and Briggs (John Seitz), who are at once obsequious and menacing.
The second act opens the following morning, with Spooner having spent the night locked in the well-appointed study that is the play’s sole setting. When Hirst reappears, they begin a conversation that takes them back to their college days and the various women who may (or may not) have passed through their lives.
In his published diaries, the play’s original director, Peter Hall, berated critics who thought Hirst and Spooner actually knew each other. Certainly the most compelling aspect of Pinter’s dramaturgy is his distortion of intimate communication: Lovers never really know each other, spouses cannot reconcile their memories of important events, strangers erupt with impossibly detailed recollections about people they’ve just met.
Ralph Richardson and John Gielgud starred in Hall’s “No Man’s Land” in 1975, and it’s easy to imagine it as a kind of extended vaudeville. It’s full of bawdy humor and comic humiliations, mostly at Spooner’s expense, though Hirst gets a few drunken pratfalls, as well. Yet the ending is anything but vaudeville; in a monolog of almost unbearable sadness, Spooner offers himself as Hirst’s amanuensis and imagines arranging a small gathering at which Hirst would read from his work.
“My career, I admit it freely, has been checkered,” Spooner says. “I was one of the golden of my generation. Something happened. I don’t know what it was. Nevertheless I am I and have survived insult and deprivation.”
Tie askew, suit crumpled, thinning hair straying out in wispy parentheses, his voice an evening-length intimation of ruined dreams and diminished expectations, Plummer is all but unrecognizable asSpooner. “I’ve never been loved,” Spooner says early on. “From this I derive my strength.” Plummer plays the humor and the bathos with equal ease and complete conviction. By turns funny and heartbreaking, it’s an exquisite, haunting performance.
On the other hand, everything Robards — that master of realistic roles — does with Hirst conveys the awkward discomfort of an actor who doesn’t get it or doesn’t believe it. Whether banging a whisky bottle on a bar glass or crawling drunkenly toward the door, Robards is hamstrung, if not unstrung, by a role that would have seemed as suited to him as the natty outfits in which Jane Greenwood has dressed him.
Wood and Seitz are particularly fine as the servants, though the latter has problems with the accent (as does Robards). Under David Jones’ direction, the play unfolds efficiently, and he wisely underplays the darker cadences and flourishes that have become a Pinter cliche. Efficient, too, is David Jenkins’ townhouse setting — which Richard Nelson has lit with very careful attention to the shifting moods and fluid realities unfolding in this anteroom to no man’s land.