Bay Area Theater Review: NO MAN’S LAND (Berkeley Repertory Theatre)

by Tony Frankel on August 12, 2013

in Theater-San Francisco / Bay Area

A PRODUCTION OF, AND IN, NO MAN’S LAND

It seems that people are forever cursed by their feeble attempts to make their lives neat and tidy. Whatever illusion of structure is created—a calendar, a grocery list, a mortgage, a marriage license—life is constantly changing. Humankind uses religion, science and the arts to explain away this basic elusiveness because life’s inherent Tony Frankel’s Stage and Cinema Bay Area review of Harold Pinter’s “No Man’s Land” at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Roda Theatre. Starring Ian McKellen, Patrick Stewart, Billy Crudup, and Shuler Hensley.tenuousness can be disturbing to most. The works of playwright Harold Pinter, however, celebrate the mystery, tension and intangibility of life with his opaque text and trademark pauses which drip with meaningful uncertainty. In Pinter’s world, communication is not all it seems, a physical or psychological threat hovers over the proceedings, and the search for meaning (or “desire for verification” as he calls it) may be reasonable, but finding it rarely reassures in the face of any given menace.

“There are no hard distinctions between what is real and what is unreal, nor between what is true or false; [life] can be both true and false,” Pinter wrote in 1960. “A character on the stage who can present no convincing argument or information as to his past experience, his present behavior or his aspirations, nor give a comprehensive analysis of his motives, is as legitimate and as worthy of attention as one who, alarmingly, can do all these things.”

Welcome to No Man’s Land, an elliptical play in which Pinter’s spare but beautifully calibrated language has us puzzled as to just what in the hell is going on. To say that the milieu of this rarely produced masterwork is precisely what its title submits is an understatement. Hirst is an illustrious, affluent and alcoholic ”littérateur” in his 60s who lives in a great manse on the edge of Hampstead Heath with two younger, Tony Frankel’s Stage and Cinema Bay Area review of Harold Pinter’s “No Man’s Land” at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Roda Theatre. Starring Ian McKellen, Patrick Stewart, Billy Crudup, and Shuler Hensley.working-class employees. He arrives home with a similarly aged character named Spooner, an unkempt failed poet whom he has ”picked up” in a local pub.

Last night, after Berkeley Rep’s highly anticipated revival starring Ian McKellen, Patrick Stewart, Billy Crudup, and Shuler Hensley opened, the audience was abuzz trying to piece together this puzzle play. What exactly is the relationship between Hirst (Stewart) and Spooner (McKellen)? Is Spooner an old friend from Oxford or not? And what’s going on between Hirst, who clearly runs the roost, and his two younger housemates (played by Crudup and Hensley)? Are these businesslike servants lovers or thugs or what? Are Hirst and Spooner lovers? Is Hirst suffering from dementia and selective memory? To know the answers to these and many more questions isn’t the point, because we’ll never know.

Tony Frankel’s Stage and Cinema Bay Area review of Harold Pinter’s “No Man’s Land” at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Roda Theatre. Starring Ian McKellen, Patrick Stewart, Billy Crudup, and Shuler Hensley.That is why No Man’s Land, which moves to Broadway this fall where it will play in rep with Waiting for Godot, must be dripping with subtext. While it’s a giddy treat watching these fine actors, director Sean Mathias offers a production rich in line readings but deficient in the hidden agenda necessary to make this play stunning. Crudup is far and away the most magnetic actor in the first act, but as sexy as he is, he lacks sexual tension. Hensley would be perfect as the hapless gangster in Pinter’s The Dumb Waiter, as there is nothing menacing about him whatsoever, even though he is an imposing figure; he just seems like a big lug who takes his job of caretaker/servant/butler quite seriously. Crudup and Hensley play the two characters that should be threatening and volatile, but they are not.

Tony Frankel’s Stage and Cinema Bay Area review of Harold Pinter’s “No Man’s Land” at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Roda Theatre. Starring Ian McKellen, Patrick Stewart, Billy Crudup, and Shuler Hensley.McKellen inhabits the slovenly Spooner to perfection. His slinky movements indicate that this literate hobo isn’t quite sure how to worm his way into this household—and maybe into a job. Stewart plays recalcitrant and stoic wonderfully, but doesn’t seem to have any character-defining physical traits. The opening of Act Two is where these great thespians get to shine: Hirst, refreshed from a night’s sleep, suddenly recognizes Spooner as his old class chum. As he begins to reminisce, Spooner, at first, has no idea what he is talking about. But as Hirst describes his erstwhile friend as athletic and a great poet, McKellen has a field day growing into the person that Hirst is talking about. Stewart tackles his long monologue with a fervent joy, while McKellen’s expressions become a monologue all their own. It’s a scene that is as delicious as theater can get.

Tony Frankel’s Stage and Cinema Bay Area review of Harold Pinter’s “No Man’s Land” at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Roda Theatre. Starring Ian McKellen, Patrick Stewart, Billy Crudup, and Shuler Hensley.Stephen Brimson Lewis’ costumes are astounding, from Spooner’s overused walking shoes to the blazing blue socks on Hirst; for no reason other than that the play was written in 1975, the costumes are smack dab in the 70s, especially Crudup’s Qiana disco shirt and Hensley’s leather jacket. Lewis’ sets are quite literal for a No Man’s Land: the large room has a curved neo-palladium compartmented wall, but in place of a ceiling there is a threatening sky with images of barren trees all around (Zachary Borovay, projection design); there are even leaves piled on either side of the set. The furniture is sparse and the only detailed element in the room is a liquor cabinet. Also, peeking through the sides of the room on either side of the stage is exposed wooden lattice work without plaster on it. Much of the design seems to say there is a transparency going on. Peter Kaczorowski created terrific directional lighting, Rob Milburn & Michael Bodeen designed the original music & sound, and Tom Watson made an amazing hair piece for Stewart.

Mathias found a good deal of humor in the text, but he took no advantage of the Pinter Pauses. It’s a treat to see these actors plying their craft, and there are plenty of fun moments, but without suspense or exciting staging, this production ends up as a No Man’s Land in its own right.

photos courtesy of kevinberne.com
all images © Berkeley Repertory Theatre—all rights reserved

No Man’s Land
Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Roda Theatre
ends on August 31, 2013
for tickets, call 510.647.2949 or visit Berkeley Rep

then plays Cort Theatre on Broadway in rep with Waiting for Godot
Oct 31 – March 30, 2014
for tickets, visit Cort Theatre

UK Tour Aug 3 – Sep 3, 2016
then plays Wyndhams Theatre, Charing Cross Rd, London
Sep 8 – Dec 17, 2016
for tickets, visit London Theatres

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