“This is a very pleasant room,” the garrulous Mr. Spooner (Christopher Henley) says to his host, the silent, opaque Mr. Hirst (Brian Hemmingsen), and indeed it is, as it is festooned everywhere with alcohol, of every variety, in large bottles and small. Hirst has met Spooner in a bar in a skuzzy town midway between London and the wealthy neighborhood of Hampstead Heath, where Hirst lives, and decided to bring Spooner home with him. At first you think, oh no, this is a pickup which is going to go horribly, horribly wrong, but then you realize that it’s not. It’s much worse than that.
No Man’s Land is Harold Pinter’s Endgame, a play in which the protagonist’s fatal flaw keeps him insulated from a timeless and static exterior. In the much shorter Beckett play, Ham’s deficiency is straightforward enough. His inability to love has ruined his world. No Man’s Land, on the other hand, is ambiguous; almost excruciatingly so. Mr. Hirst is profoundly delusional. But in the play’s environment – full of liars and confidence men – he seems right at home.
The play is like a symphony with four movements. In the first, Hirst is a heavy drinker – he tosses off about a pint of vodka, then nonchalantly switches to scotch and then cheap Irish whiskey – who keeps his counsel, saying more with his face and his silences than he does with his voice. Spooner is a deadhearted con man, who hopes to turn a pickup into a cash-filled relationship.
In the second, Hirst suddenly reveals himself as a man haunted by wet demons and, motor control demolished by alcohol, snakes his way along the floor to his room. Hirst’s manservants/bodyguards, the cheerily malevolent Foster (Frank Britton) and the grim Briggs (Bruce Alan Rauscher) confront Spooner, and he turns from aggressor to victim.
In the third, Hirst returns triumphant to reveal himself as an important literary figure; the desperate Spooner decides he is one too. In the fourth, Spooner makes his play for what he believes will be a secure old age, and Hirst reverts to silence and indifference.
I realize that this summary is a little cryptic, but I am not sure you will know more after watching the entire play (as I believe you should). Pinter’s stock in trade was ambiguity, and he laid it on thick here. Spooner is a professional liar, but he is more grounded in reality than Hirst, who at one point mistakes Spooner for an Oxford classmate, to Spooner’s obvious delight. Nor are Foster and Briggs reliable conveyers of narrative. At one point Briggs gives Spooner an implausible story about how he met Foster, and warns Spooner that Foster will deny every bit of it. As for Foster, he introduces himself to Spooner by claiming that Hirst is his father – a claim which is clearly untrue.
I said I believe you should watch this play, and here’s why: two of the best performances I have seen on the Washington stage this year. Henley’s boneless Spooner recalls Bill Irwin’s portrayal of George in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf opposite Katherine Turner at the Kennedy Center a few years ago. His body is in constant rebellion against itself; he speaks boldly, but flinches when spoken to; he speaks fluidly, but his eyes are constantly trying to read Hirst’s reaction, so that he can adjust himself. His Spooner is a man of no script and all improvisation, and the possibility of danger rides on him like a jockey on a galloping horse.
If the possibility of danger rides on Henley’s Spooner, Hemmingsen’s Hirst is danger itself. Hemmingsen, a large, powerfully-built man, uses his heavily-lidded silences as a weapon – but also (and simultaneously!) as a comic device. Pinter famously uses the space between words to tell his story, and Hemmingsen (and director Tom Prewitt) get that; they also get the considerable wit which Pinter has imbedded in the play. Although this is largely a play about liars and boozehounds, the audience laughed freely, and frequently, at the production I attended.
No Man’s Land
Closes May 25, 2013
Theater On The Run
3700 South Four Mile Run Drive
2 hours, 5 minutes with 1 intermission
Tickets: $25 – $35
Thursdays thru Sundays
But Hemmingsen does more than that. He has violent personality changes throughout the play, but he somehow remains the same person at his core. When, having finally drunk his fill, Hirst gives way to his demons, we understand immediately how this silent, dangerous man could be so terrified; and when he comes out later, convivial and triumphant, we are prepared for Hirst 3.0 by the work Hemmingsen has done earlier.
Finally, the work Hemmingsen does at the apex of Hirst’s drunkenness is magnificent; if you have ever seen a drunk try to rise to his feet and fail spectacularly and repeatedly (or, worse, been in that position yourself) you will understand how absolutely authentic Hemmingsen’s portrayal is, and how absolutely chilling. Hemmingsen is one of Washington’s busier, and better, actors, but this is the best I’ve ever seen him.
There is much else to like about this play, including Steven T. Royal Jr.’s beautiful set and fine costumes, David Crandall’s spot-on sound design, and good work by Britton and Rauscher, both of whom have got a lock on this malevolence thing but who are called upon to do more than that in this play, and who respond successfully.
A summary decision by Artisphere’s new masters has deprived WSC Avant Bard of its home, but Arlington’s Theatre on the Run seems ideal for this production.
No Man’s Land by Harold Pinter Directed by Tom Prewitt. Featuring Christopher Henley, Brian Hemmingsen, Frank Britton and Bruce Alan Rauscher. Scenic and Costume Design by Stephen T. Royal. Lighting Design by Joseph R. Walls. Sound Design by David Crandall. Props Design by Kevin Laughon. Christine Hirrel was the dialect coach; Alan Katz served as dramaturg. Debbie Grossman, assisted by Ashley Chen, was the stage manager. Produced by WSC Avant Bard . Reviewed by Tim Treanor