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New Jersey by Bob Rendell

Harold Pinter Enters No Man's Land

No Man's Land
Sherman Howard and Edmond Genest
The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey has turned to the dark, menacing, obscure and eerily fascinating world of Harold Pinter with its production of his 1975 success No Man's Land. Director Bonnie J. Monte has captured the essence of Pinter with unerring accuracy, and her production provides insights into his work which will well reward lovers of serious and challenging theatre.

After more than a bit of boozing at a public house, Hirst and Spooner find themselves sharing a drink in the library of the former's house in tony Hampstead (northwest London). Both men are writers. Spooner, who says that he is a poet, is full of braggadocio as to his genius and success. His tattered clothes suggest that Spooner is anything but successful. The weary, decimated Hirst is overwhelmed by Spooner's prattle. He says, "Today, you find me in the last lap of a race that I have forgotten how to run" shortly before collapsing onto the floor and then crawling into the next room.

Two younger men, Foster and Briggs, enter from another door. They corner Spooner menacingly. "You laid your hand on a rich and powerful man." Foster warns Spooner against coming between them and Hirst. "He is an artist and we make his living possible." He describes himself as Hirst's "amanuenses." Briggs is his chauffeur and bodyguard. Spooner's very life seems in danger even before they extinguish the lights as they lock Spencer in the library for the night.

The second and final scene (designated as act two although there is no intermission) is set on the next morning. Here the battle for the favor and control of the successful artist Hirst between his two retainers and the down at the heels intruder plays out as Hirst fearfully contemplates his future as a crippled lion in winter.

An English drama critic was the first to describe the Pinter style as comedy of menace. And there is a fair share of humor largely from absurd comments (i.e., garlands are purported to hang in a church for people who died as reputed virgins), odd, gratuitous insults, and eerily, off center threats. However, while the relationships and past events depicted are subject to varying interpretations, never before have I found the basis behind Pinter's pervasive sense of menace as clear as it is in this production. Hirst appears to be a surrogate for Pinter or, more precisely, for Pinter's fears. As even those who seem closest to him vie for his approval, Hirst fears that each has his own agenda and will use him for personal benefit at his expense. Each and every of the four characters are potential threats to the others. To extrapolate, Pinter finds that as people progress through their always dangerous lives, there is potential for harm in every encounter and situation. Also the threat of failing old age, a no man's land of living death, is on Pinter's mind here. It seems somewhat odd that a 44-year-old Pinter—No Man's Land was written in 1974—would be so obsessed with old age. (Pinter died in 2008 at the age of 78.) Perhaps, you will interpret this play differently than has this senior age reviewer. If you are intrigued as to how you might interpret all this, then this play is for you.

While the talent and legendary star power of Ralph Richardson (Hirst) and John Gielgud (Spooner) certainly created excitement in both London and New York when originally produced (1975), this Shakespeare Theatre production is in no manner lacking in quality. Edmond Genest smoothly conveys the alcohol assisted fatigue and weakness of Hirst, as well as the now faded fire and powerful authority that he is now only able to arouse intermittently. Sherman Howard (Spooner) embodies the goodtime Charlie likeability of an entertaining raconteur whose drinks are dependent on the generosity of others.

Paul Mullins (Briggs) is most overtly menacing when he is protecting his territory, extremely rattled by his replacement as Hirst's most trusted retainer, and unexpectedly gracious when at ease. Derek Wilson (Foster) strongly conveys the ambiguity of the play as he wordlessly alternates between menacingly eyeballing Spooner and following his interaction with the others. Both Mullins and Wilson convey a largely unspoken, ambiguous tie between them.

Adam Miecielica's dark, oddly angled quadrangular set (with matching open centered ceiling) is a visual match for Pinter's script.

As the lights came up for the curtain calls of this extremely well tuned, insightful production of No Man's Land, I felt a strong sense of satisfaction about my evening in its presence.

No Man's Land continues performances (Evenings: Tuesday, Wednesday and Sunday 7:30 pm; Thursday, Friday 7 Saturday 8 pm; Matinees: Saturday and Sunday 2 pm) through August 29, 2010, at the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey, on the campus of Drew University, 36 Madison Avenue, Madison, NJ 07940. Box Office: 973-408-5600, online: www.shakespeareNJ.org.

No Man's Land by Harold Pinter; directed by Bonnie J. Monte

Cast:
Hirst.....................................Edmund Genest
Spooner.............................Sherman Howard
Foster......................................Derek Wilson
Briggs.......................................Paul Mullins


Photo:  ©Gerry Goodstein


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- Bob Rendell



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