Harold Pinter was such a sui generis artist that the term Pinteresque was coined to describe his works and those of playwrights who followed in his elusive artistic footsteps. An evening with a Pinter play can be as intellectually challenging, stimulating, unsettling and confounding as it is entertaining and ultimately illuminating. The Steppenwolf production of No Man’s Land starring ensemble member Jeff Perry and Mark Ulrich is all of those things, delivering big laughs via rapier performances and providing bleak insights into the human condition.
But what’s it about? Well, it’s about two hours with a 15-minute intermission. Beyond that, though? Hard to pinpoint with precision, which is very much the point. From the opening curtain, No Man’s Land throws you off kilter in exceedingly witty fashion with an underpinning of slowly building menace.
We see two men in their sixties drunkenly conversing in one’s north London drawing room after a night at the pub. They have just met. Or maybe they have known each other for many years, since before the war, back in their Oxford days. They continue to drink. The threadbare visitor, Spooner, does most of the talking. At first, anyway. He’s a retired poet, a patron of the arts, a hale fellow well met with impeccable powers of perception. Or so he says. They pour more drinks. And then the reticent host, Hirst, something of a literary lion in his cups, successful enough to have two younger household staff members looking after him, or perhaps leeching off of him, or more likely a bit of both, begins to grow more voluble. He’s drinking both vodka and Scotch at this point. A glass is thrown. He crawls out of the room to sleep it off, leaving Spooner to fend for himself as he draws the borderline-malevolent attentions of the household crew, Briggs and Foster, one of whom locks him in the room overnight only to serve him breakfast with champagne the next morning. Throughout, there is a sexual tension, a cruising subtext among all four men, never to be spelled out but often to be felt.
You can get lost in the plot, completely turned around even as you marvel at the hilariously elliptical dialogue. As noted earlier, that’s precisely the point. We don’t know these men at first, and just when we think we may be starting to grasp who they are, the rug is pulled. We have to conclude that we don’t really know them, can’t really know them. But we know their type. We start to feel their deeper currents. We begin to extrapolate the shaky specifics of their biographies and circumstances to a firmer universality.
You will lose your friends, who someday will be only glancingly recollected faces in a photo book, or perhaps a Facebook. Your fate will diverge from those of similar interests and upbringing and station, leaving some rich and some scrabbling in old age for reasons that are impossible to suss out. You will be supplanted by younger people of uncertain motives. Your memory will fail you, but you will hang onto it like a leaky lifeboat in a stormy sea until you sink, like everyone eventually does.
In his work, Pinter helps us find deeper meaning at the very edges of our perception. Perry and Ulrich ably plumb the depths of pathos and the heights of absurdity, as do the young semi-toughs played by Samuel Roukin and Jon Hudson Odom, who pulls off the riveting trick (as he did recently in Toni Stone at the Goodman) of seeming to be both the wisest, most self-contained character onstage while also simmering with frustration and barely contained rage.
This production, authoritatively directed by Les Waters, most rewards viewers who don’t sweat the details and instead connect with the primal truths Pinter and these fine actors reveal in the course of uncertain events, all while enjoying many deep laughs at frail humanity’s expense even as they catch a fleeting glimmer of the sobering fate that awaits us all.
No Man’s Land runs through August 20 at Steppenwolf Theatre.
For a full roundup of reviews of this show, visit Theatre in Chicago.
Photo by Michael Brosilow