I have fond memories of seeing Sir John Gielgud and Sir Ralph Richardson in NO MAN'S LAND back in 1975. The play seemed tailor-made to their talents. The long speeches Pinter has given his characters demand great technique and some charisma. Now we have two knights, Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart as the aging writers Spooner and Hirst. Hirst, obviously a successful writer and critic, has met Spooner, a shabby but genteel lesser literary figure, in a pub near Hampstead Heath and has brought Spooner home for some reason -- the need for someone to get drunk with? the need for companionship? Spooner seems irritatingly garrulous while Hirst quietly gets so drunk that he has to crawl out of the room. Spooner claims to live in the country wife his wife and daughters but given his later wish to stay in Hirst's home as his assistant, this isn't likely. Hirst is cared for by two somewhat sinister men (this is a Pinter play) and it is not clear who is in charge of whom. A lot isn't quite clear in the play. Is Spooner a gentleman farmer, as he claims, or does he work in a Chalk Farm pub?
Memory and age are the primary subjects of this play. Hirst's short-term memory is failing him, but he lives in the past. At one point, he thinks Spooner is an old Oxford chum. "Did you have a good war?" he asks. Spooner, who has a gift for improvisation, manages to fit into whatever scenario from the past Hirst invents. His goal only seems to be to be able to find a place for himself in this odd all-male household. The younger men, the garrulous Foster (Billy Crudup) and and taciturn Briggs (Shuler Hensley) are suspicious of Spooner and don't want him invading their territory. Perhaps an all-male world is the only one these men can survive in. Spooner and Hirst talk about lost loves, cuckolding each other and both at some point admit that they have never experienced love. Their all male No Man's Land, is a place where the present and future don't seem to exist and the past is a mystery. Hirst's favorite object is a photo album of past friends, but he has no desire to match the faces with names. The images are enough. This is a kind of death in life. While this all sounds bleak, NO MAN'S LAND is a very funny play.
It's not surprising that these four men are alternating NO MAN'S LAND with Beckett's WAITING FOR GODOT both are about men adrift in a world in which present and past are oddly mixed together and the future seems uncertain.
It's always a joy to see Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart on stage. McKellen looks properly seedy as Spooner, but tries to maintain his dignity in odd and sometimes frightening circumstances. Stewart at first seems a picture of self-possession, but soon loses physical and mental control. The two veteran actors make a great double team. Billy Crudup, with his convincing working class accent, offers another kind of explosion of language. He and his counterpart also offer conflicting versions of their past together, though it is never clear what their relationship is. Hensley offers just the right contrast to Crubup's volatility. This is an evening of fine acting by both the British and American actors. Sean Mathias's production is paced and staged perfectly.
I was delighted to see that this Broadway audience seemed to listening intently to this difficult play. It's a feast of beautiful, poetic language superbly acted. What more could one want??
NO MAN'S LAND. Cort Theatre. January 8, 2014