`No Man's Land' Repels Attempts To Find Meaning

But star performances by Plummer and Robards are consolation prize

NO MAN'S LAND Drama by Harold Pinter. At the Roundabout Theatre through March 6.

THE plays of Harold Pinter are never exactly clear in their meanings, but his ``No Man's Land'' is even more oblique than usual. This, no doubt, accounts for the fact that the play has not received a major New York production since its Broadway debut in 1976. Another reason might be the daunting prospect of filling the shoes of the original two leads - Ralph Richardson and John Gielgud.

The revival at the Roundabout Theatre Company doesn't exactly stint when it comes to star power, since the roles are taken by Christopher Plummer and Jason Robards.

The playwright's usual vague atmosphere of menace is once again present in this encounter between two poets: Hirst, a well-heeled gentleman who likes to sit contentedly in his drawing room downing glass after glass of alcohol, and Spooner, a disheveled visitor and an apparent friend from Hirst's past. Their conversation rambles and is full of non sequiturs, although the phrasing is always elegant.

Two men, Foster (Tom Wood) and Briggs (John Seitz), possibly housemates of Hirst, enter the scene. They exude hostility, although we have no idea why.

Pinter's plays, even when inexplicable, usually have enough resonance to support a variety of interpretations, and they are almost always entertaining in their complexities. But ``No Man's Land,'' is even less coherent, leaving most theatergoers puzzled.

Thankfully, we are guided through the vagaries of the script by two excellent performers. Robards (who admitted in a recent interview that even he had no idea what the play meant) and Plummer bring a lifetime of experience to their roles, and simply seeing them onstage together is a pleasure.

Their characters couldn't be more unalike; Hirst is withdrawn emotionally and intellectually, and Robards plays him like an automaton, even clanking his liquor bottle to his glass with a robotic stiffness. Spooner is like an eccentric professor, down on his luck, but amiable and eager to please.

The acting highlight is a second-act scene in which the two men trade accounts of long-ago infidelities - the timing and facial reactions on the part of both performers constitute a master class in comic acting. Supporting players John Seitz (whose very appearance is menacing) and Tom Wood offer able performances.

Director David Jones is no stranger to Pinter (his film-directing credits include Pinter's ``Betrayal'' and the playwright's adaptation of Kafka's ``The Trial''), and he puts the actors through their paces well.

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