Can you do Pinter without the pauses?
However flippant the question seems, it must be raised in connection with a playwright whose work, when first introduced to these shores 30-odd years ago, intimidated and unsettled theatergoers - partly through the ominousness of all the things left unspoken.
The Roundabout's revival of "No Man's Land," which stars Christopher Plummer and Jason Robards, makes the play seem almost amiable. This would have seemed unimaginable to theatergoers a few decades ago.
Pinter has always seemed a playwright defined more by what he is not than what he is. That's why the pauses took on such significance in the early productions. When his work began to appear here, in the early '60s, it was part of a revolt against theater conventions.
The well-made plays of the '40s and 50's, especially English ones, always made it easy for the audience to know just what it was supposed to think of every character and every action.
Pinter deliberately flouted such understanding. His characters were not even sure of their own identity. There was no way for the audience to pigeonhole them. The only way to grasp them was to respond on a moment-by-moment basis, as if they were real, not just characters in a play.
Pinter's plays were, in effect, abstract compositions, and the famous pauses were negative space. Just as in an abstract painting, where the neutral surfaces reverberate with the colors around them, the pauses in Pinter's plays were full of the questions raised and never really answered in the laconic, pregnant dialogue.
Although it is never wise to use even Pinter's words to "sum up" the content of one of his plays, it does seem valid to use one of the character's descriptions of "No Man's Land," since it occurs twice: "does not move...or change...or grow old...remains...forever...icy...silent."
The play takes place in a comfortably furnished room in the house of a poet, Hirst (Robards). At one point Hirst alludes to having been involved in military intelligence, which may account for his prosperous surroundings. His apparent friend Spooner (Plummer) fits our idea of a poet more accurately - seedy, eccentric, more "poetic" in speech.
In addition to these two old men, there are two younger men who seem to be Hirst's servants - although their relationship to each other and to Hirst is always in flux. Because of the constant sense of menace in the air, one might say the play is a study of masculine modes of behavior (to the extent that intimidation is a "masculine" prerogative).
As is often the case, the play gives the impression of an actor's exercise. The success of the evening depends on how densely the actors fill in their enigmatic characters.
In this case, the most satisfying work is unquestionably Plummer's. With the hair on the sides of a balding skull jetting outward, wing-like, Plummer wears an ill-fitting jacket and wrinkled pants. He minces about the stage prissily, as befits the stereotype of an aging poet.
Clownlike at times, Plummer also exudes pathos. Spooner's intellectual concerns seem weak and imperiled in Hirst's complacent but forbidding terrain. It is a masterly performance.
As Hirst, Robards exudes bonhomie and strength - but not enough mystery. His is the more curious, elusive past, and Robards suggests too little of it.
John Seitz makes the more assertive of the two "servants" imposing. As the more gregarious of the two, Tom Wood has an inappropriate drawingroom comedy charm.
Overall, the play itself does not seem as weighty as it once did. Is it the performances? The lack of pauses? Or has the novelty of Pinter worn off, leaving its artifice as exposed and far more dated than that in Oscar Wilde or Noel Coward?
Shakespeare claimed there were seven ages of man - he was wrong. The first is that moment in early youth when he realizes he is going to live. The second comes in early middle-age when he realizes he is going to die.
And the last age of man is marked by the gradual realization that any further change is impossible - or at least can only be shaped by outside circumstances.
This is the Ice Age, and the age of which Harold Pinter is writing with circumspect subtlety in his glacial but gorgeous and wryly funny play "No Man's Land," last night given a new production by David Jones for the Roundabout Theater.
When "No Man's Land" first played Broadway in 1976, it was in Peter Hall's original staging for the British National Theater and starred those glamorous knights, Sir John Gielgud and Sir Ralph Richardson.
To Pinter's detractors, it seemed then that the players were more important, or at least more clear, than the play. And for a long time, actors, on both sides of the Atlantic, seemed chary of trying out those unique footprints for size.
But last year saw a London revival (with Pinter himself appearing in Richardson's role). Now the play's bleak territory is invaded by Christopher Plummer and Jason Robards.
The story - if there is a story - is simple enough. There are two elderly poets: the terminally seedy Spooner (Plummer), who has been picked up by the complacent, arrogantly successful Hirst (Robards), and brought back to his Hampstead mansion for drinks.
Soon we discover that the geriatric bully-boy Hirst is a virtual prisoner in his own home, with his manservants, the epicene and threatening Foster (Tom Wood) and the urbanely supercilious Briggs (John Seitz), doubling as nursemaids and jailers.
Ambiguity hangs in the air like a frozen waterfall. Do Spooner and Hirst know one another? Are they, just possibly, aspects of the same man? Liquor-soaked, they score off one another about a perhaps fictional past, while talking about a perfectly impossible future.
They crave change, but are in the grip of age...that "no man's land, which never moves, never changes, which never grows older, but remains forever, icy and silent."
As the play proceeds along its quirky, mysterious way, the twisting dialogue amuses, intrigues and enchants. The evening becomes a bizarrely lyrical, almost jaunty threnody on the unseemly impotence of old age.
It is also - as everyone noticed back in 1976 - a fantastically effective platform for actors, and Jones elicits a beautifully modulated performance from a cast in which Plummer dominates with shifty grace and incandescent shabbiness.
The other actors - captured by Jones in the beautiful vivarium contrived by the designing team of David Jenkins (set), Jane Greenwood (costumes) and Richard Nelson (lighting) - have the right style, from the viperish Wood, the unctuous Seitz and (recalling what Richardson achieved) the rather disappointing but still blundering-on-target Robards.
But nothing could wrest the play from the coquettish Plummer, tiptoeing daintily through Pinter's tulips as if they were landmines. Which, of course, they are. A great performance.
The passage of time has not elucidated the mysteries at the heart of Harold Pinter's "No Man's Land," which remains as much a theatrical Rorschach test as it ever was. What is abundantly clear at the Criterion Center, where the Roundabout Theater Company revived the 1975 drama last night, is that the right actors can have a field day exploring its opaque depths.
None were righter, of course, than Ralph Richardson and John Gielgud, who created the roles of Hirst and Spooner: the one, a grand but crumbling man of letters; the other, a shabby would-be poet. Or so they claimed. Much of the evening's strange appeal lay in figuring out where the truth stopped and the lies began. Were they old friends? Longstanding enemies? Had sex, art or envy come between them? The only logical assumption, as they faced each other over whisky and distant memories, was that nothing was logical.
At the Criterion Center, Jason Robards, resembling an Old Testament patriarch in tweeds, gives a big, blustery performance as Hirst. But it is Christopher Plummer whose dazzlingly witty portrayal of Spooner captures the imagination. He has a merry little smile, his eyes dance gleefully, and when he makes his way gingerly across the stage, it's as if he were negotiating a bed of tulips and fearful of crushing the smallest sprout. Yet you'll never doubt that this overgrown pixie is about as trustworthy as a rabid cur. Even as Mr. Pinter's play frustrates the rational mind, Mr. Plummer's deceptively sprightly behavior makes rational explanations seem somehow unnecessary. The brilliantly etched conniving is sufficient unto itself.
If there is a key to the drama, it may be the title, with its double meaning. In one sense, no man's land can be a strip of desolation vacated by humanity, which finds existence more hospitable elsewhere. It can also be the territory separating two warring factions, potential spoils for the victorious. The handsome living room that the set designer David Jenkins has built on the Criterion stage functions as both.
Hirst, a wealthy author in his 60's, presumably once held court here. But the glory is gone. His memory has clouded over, and he confesses to being in "the last lap of a race . . . I had long forgotten to run." An eroded monument to pomposity, he is tended by two ruffians, thinly masked as servants, who call all the shots. In short, this no man's land is the habitat of diminished life.
Earlier in the evening, it seems, Hirst ventured out to a pub in Hampstead Heath and brought Spooner back home with him for a nightcap, conversation and, possibly, sex. The garrulous Spooner pronounces himself a poet, although every appearance, including the pinched clothes that the costumer Jane Greenwood has given him, confirms that he has met with scant success.
As the liquor flows, Spooner explains that there are two kinds of people in the world: those who have the allure and the trappings of strength, and those who have "the intelligence and perception to stick a needle through that posture" to the soft flab underneath. The speech is, in essence, a declaration of war. No man's land has become a prospective battlefield.
The fight, however, is couched in terms that leave room for wide-ranging interpretation. Spooner says he's merely offering his services as a friend and secretary who can put a name to all the faded faces in Hirst's photograph albums. "A proper exhumation could take place," he explains. But the helpful proposal could be an expression of cold, calculating opportunism. Most of the characters in a Pinter play know far more than they ever own up to. This one is complicated by the fact that they've forgotten a lot of what they once knew.
Does Hirst sense an encroacher on his turf? Is that why he chooses, the next morning, to neutralize Spooner by treating him as an old classmate from Oxford? In the evening's funniest sequence, the two men recall the sexual peccadilloes of their youth with a mounting hostility. Their rivalry, apparently, wasn't always literary. Snobbish names like Arabella Hinscott, Charles Wetherby and Stella Winstanley (not to mention her brother Bunty) are plucked out of the past, although who did what with whom is hilariously uncertain. Spooner even accuses Hirst of having seduced his wife, Emily. "This is scandalous! How dare you?" roars Hirst, who may indeed have bedded Emily. If Emily ever existed.
On the other hand, it is conceivable that Hirst is on the cusp of senility and that Spooner is just going along with their supposedly shared history as a way of getting his foot in the door. The servants -- the older Briggs (John Seitz) and the younger Foster (Tom Wood) -- behave with scarcely veiled hostility toward the interloper, indicating that they, too, are aware of a threat to the existing power structure. Mr. Seitz has the airs of a thug turned butler; Mr. Foster, dressed for Carnaby Street in its heyday, projects the conviviality of an over accommodating playboy. Their true stories are anybody's guess.
If some plays are strong enough to carry the actors in them, others, like "No Man's Land," demand to be carried by strong actors. There's lots to admire in the performance of Mr. Robards, who comes across, not inappropriately, as a hollowed-out version of the blowhards he depicted so well in O'Neill's dramas. His flowing hair and beard are now snowy white, and the barrel chest has dropped. But that only lends an ironic edge to Hirst's outbursts of manly heartiness. Just as often, the character dwells in a dazed, forgetful state that suggests he's been overmedicated. Mr. Robards's eyes blur persuasively, his step grows hesitant and he collapses in a heap on the floor. The actor makes a splendid ruin.
Still, he has the less choice assignment here.
Spooner's erratic behavior, whatever its motivations, can be easily appreciated as an exercise in pure deviousness. (Mr. Plummer, lest you forget, was one of the more stunning Iagos of our time.) Hirst, a facsimile of his former self, is made up of such wasted impulses and baffling reactions that he's harder to get a handle on. Mr. Robards sometimes seems adrift in a troubling enigma.
Mr. Pinter has tossed up an additional obstacle. "No Man's Land" doesn't have as menacing a subtext as, say "The Homecoming," a no less ambiguous work, which the Roundabout expertly revived in 1991. When the threat of danger is high, you're willing to put up with contradictions and conundrums. Lower the dramatic pressure, and they become more difficult to accept. That's what happens here. The British director David Jones views the play, at least partly, as an elegy. Life is grinding down. Long-ago events have taken their sharp and cruel toll on two elderly men. With its padded leather door and the high brick wall on the other side of the floor-to-ceiling window, the set could even be a plush asylum, the last stop on the way to death.
When, in the final moments, Spooner acknowledges no man's land -- "which never moves, which never changes, which never grows older, but which remains forever, icy and silent" -- he is repeating with minor changes an observation that Hirst makes at the drama's start. The evening's skirmishes would seem to have produced a checkmate. Any further jockeying is futile. The game has played itself out.
If you insist on knowing the rules of that game, then "No Man's Land" will be, as it always was, an infuriatingly obscure experience. If you don't, the maneuvering has its fascinations. I can't tell you exactly what's going on in Mr. Plummer's mind. I do know this, though. He's up to no damn good, and he's memorable.
Christopher Plummer and Jason Robards are the draw in the Roundabout's elegant revival of Harold Pinter's study of two aging writers, one prosperous, the other a foolish but ennobled failure. They're a remarkable pair to watch wrangling with Pinter's elliptical, often uncrackable script. As it happens, Plummer emerges triumphant, while Robards seems utterly at sea.
True to Pinter form, the dapper Hirst (Robards) and the rumpled Spooner (Plummer) seem to be old chums one minute, wary strangers the next. Which aspect is to believed is a matter for audiences to determine.
At the opening, Hirst has apparently picked up Spooner at a bar and brought him home for late night conversation and drink, though Spooner does most of the talking and Hirst most of the drinking. Scene takes a sinister turn with the arrival of Hirst's servants, Foster (Tom Wood) and Briggs (John Seitz), who are at once obsequious and menacing.
The second act opens the following morning, with Spooner having spent the night locked in the well-appointed study that is the play's sole setting. When Hirst reappears, they begin a conversation that takes them back to their college days and the various women who may (or may not) have passed through their lives.
In his published diaries, the play's original director, Peter Hall, berated critics who thought Hirst and Spooner actually knew each other. Certainly the most compelling aspect of Pinter's dramaturgy is his distortion of intimate communication: Lovers never really know each other, spouses cannot reconcile their memories of important events, strangers erupt with impossibly detailed recollections about people they've just met.
Ralph Richardson and John Gielgud starred in Hall's "No Man's Land" in 1975, and it's easy to imagine it as a kind of extended vaudeville. It's full of bawdy humor and comic humiliations, mostly at Spooner's expense, though Hirst gets a few drunken pratfalls, as well. Yet the ending is anything but vaudeville; in a monolog of almost unbearable sadness, Spooner offers himself as Hirst's amanuensis and imagines arranging a small gathering at which Hirst would read from his work.
"My career, I admit it freely, has been checkered," Spooner says. "I was one of the golden of my generation. Something happened. I don't know what it was. Nevertheless I am I and have survived insult and deprivation."
Tie askew, suit crumpled, thinning hair straying out in wispy parentheses, his voice an evening-length intimation of ruined dreams and diminished expectations, Plummer is all but unrecognizable asSpooner. "I've never been loved," Spooner says early on. "From this I derive my strength." Plummer plays the humor and the bathos with equal ease and complete conviction. By turns funny and heartbreaking, it's an exquisite, haunting performance.
On the other hand, everything Robards -- that master of realistic roles -- does with Hirst conveys the awkward discomfort of an actor who doesn't get it or doesn't believe it. Whether banging a whisky bottle on a bar glass or crawling drunkenly toward the door, Robards is hamstrung, if not unstrung, by a role that would have seemed as suited to him as the natty outfits in which Jane Greenwood has dressed him.
Wood and Seitz are particularly fine as the servants, though the latter has problems with the accent (as does Robards). Under David Jones' direction, the play unfolds efficiently, and he wisely underplays the darker cadences and flourishes that have become a Pinter cliche. Efficient, too, is David Jenkins' townhouse setting -- which Richard Nelson has lit with very careful attention to the shifting moods and fluid realities unfolding in this anteroom to no man's land.