Powerful Isolation in "No Man's Land" at ACT
When Harold Pinter penned No Man’s Land in 1974 he sat down to write with one phrase in his head: “As it is?”
In the city’s first-ever professional production of the show, which opened last Saturday as part of ACT’s Pinter Festival, everything from the actor’s flawless English accents to the elegant simplicity of the set and costumes to the slant of dawn light coming through the curtains smacks of the reply: “Absolutely, as it is.”
The show takes place in a drawing room in Hampstead Heath where Hirst (Frank Corrado), a wealthy and declining poet now finds himself “in the last lap of a race I had long forgotten to run.” He is accompanied by a guest, Spooner (Randy Moore), a poet himself, and of equal age, though far lesser success whom Hirst has met in a nearby pub. They are eventually joined by the young, cocksure Foster (Benjamin Harris) and thuggish Briggs (Peter Crook), Hirst’s manservants who are part personal secretary and butler, part bodyguards.
Penelope Cherns’ lively and tense staging is tremendous in the way it emphasizes the constant power struggle at play among the characters and their moments of isolation and attempted connection. In Pinterland the audience is often laughing but the actors rarely are. It is a world in which characters use their words and silences to establish their status—to defend, to attack. At one moment Hirst and Spooner exchange hilarious and underhanded remarks all the while seated calmly in straight-backed armchairs at opposite ends of the room.
As Hirst’s companions Foster and Briggs, Harris and Crook perfectly strike the unsettling and complex balance between manipulation and caring. Even as they conspire to maintain status and control over their master, Briggs’ hostility towards Spooner seems as protective as it is defensive and Foster observes Hirst’s alcoholism with a son’s helpless despair.
Spooner’s motives are equally hazy. Even as he aspires to ingratiate himself into the circle of Hirst’s wealth and prestige, he wants to save him, too; to stop him from drowning in the “solitary shittery” of drink, recollection, and decay.
Spooner appeals to Hirst through shared memories of a universal and fabricated past full of picnics on the lawn, WWII service, and an Oxford populated by Buntys and Arabellas. No Man’s Land is in part a meditation on what it is that attaches people. Is it class? Is it age? Is it poetry? Memory? A shared glass of whisky? Is it nothing at all?
Corrado plunges deftly in and out of Hirst’s violent and poetic reveries, with detached raises of the eyebrows that transform into fervent stares seemingly fixed years into his past. Creating a Hirst who is at once noble and pitiful, Corrado hits the play’s final note with perfect offhanded obscurity, freezing viewers on an icy land between triumph and defeat.
In the program notes, Corrado writes that “’understanding’ Pinter…is secondary to ‘experiencing’ him.” Indeed, it is the shifting moods and motives of the actors that keep the audience enrapt and leave them pondering words as straightforward as they are mysterious. Above all it is Pinter’s poetry that enchants with the profundity he ties to simple, repeated phrases: “To your health,” “What are you drinking?” “I have known this before.”
No Man’s Land offers audiences a perfect and pleasurable glance inside one room of Pinterland, even if they can only ever theorize about the bigger picture that lies beyond its walls.
No Man's Land runs through Aug. 26 at ACT Theatre. Pictured above: Randy Moore, Peter Crook, Frank Corrado, Benjamin Harris in No Man's Land. Photo by Chris Bennion.