Harold Pinter’s No Man’s Land is the kind of play that almost defies itself. The 1975 play is wordy and esoteric, but also funny and menacing. Its four characters are both anchored and adrift. In Undermain Theatre’s production which opened last week and under Ivan Klousia’s direction, the show was a solid and compelling production that was perplexing, bleak and glorious.
With Pinter’s words, the play could have so many meanings and in some ways, it felt like both the author and Klousia allowed that. The brilliance of his writing washed over the audience, but delivery was key – and this cast of four brought strong and smart performances to the stage.
Spooner (Tyrees Allen), a poet of middling success, converses with Hirst (Bruce DuBose), a much more famous writer, over way too many drinks at his Hampstead home. The conversation is a tennis match of words and wordplay but their relationship is unclear – or there seem to be many variations of it. When Hirst’s manservants Foster (Max Morgan) and Briggs (Marcus Stimac) enter the picture, they are wary of Spooner and essentially keep him captive in Hirst’s home. Intentions are unclear throughout as exchanges and dialogue among the characters peel away at backstories but any forward motion is stunted.
Or you could just break it down as four men talking the whole time.
But with the talents of Allen and DuBose volleying back and forth, the play was rich in its darkness and humor. In my take, Spooner was this interloper who seemed to work his way into Hirst’s abode but also his insular life. Allen played him with a harmlessness that hinted at subtle intentions but never villainous. Allen wonderfully captured Spooner’s astuteness and desperation to matter.
DuBose’s more gruff Hirst was the perfect counterpart. Hirst prefers to dive into a bottle and DuBose’s growing drunkeness was a subtle metamorphosis. That also allowed him to punch his lines with more boozy comic effect. These weren’t zingers mind you. Just a drunken man’s quips that DuBose served with the perfect tint of humor. But DuBose also layered Hirst with complex resignation. Hirst just seems done with anything outside of his home and DuBose’s notes of quiet despair were affecting.
Max Morgan’s work as Foster was energetic and alluring. He had all the makings of a 1970s bad guy in a British film with a spot on Cockney dialect. Stimac was perhaps the most threatening as the hulking Briggs. Where Morgan’s brash character said everything he was thinking, Briggs was a less-is-more guy which Stimac masterfully played. There were hints that the two could be a couple or that there was some underlying queerness among the two with Hirst. An intimacy felt present there that suggested more was happening, but again, this play leaves a lot to the imagination.
Robert Winn’s set of Hirst’s sitting room felt properly English with its deep wooden notes, classic furniture and art that was also claustrophobic enough for an added element to the mood. Steve Woods’ lighting was saturnine and heavy tying in well with Winn’s look. Paul Semrad’s sound design played up the foreboding feel as well.
No Man’s Land may sound like a depressing experience, but really, it was a satisfyingly patient one that unfolded through the beauty of words. The cast was compelling and exciting amid the subdued environment and will leave you thinking about what the heck just happened for a good while. And perhaps, that’s the power of Pinter and certainly the quality of this production.
No Man’s Land runs through Dec. 3.