Theater Review - No Man's Land (NY)

Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart are consummate professionals in the art of acting; so it is a pleasure to see them working together in two plays at the Cort Theatre through March 2: “No Man’s Land” by Harold Pinter and “Waiting for Godot” by Samuel Beckett. Both are directed by Sean Mathias. Today we are going to talk about “No Man’s Land.” This is a menacing, obscure, tense study of two very elderly men, whom we first meet in mysterious circumstances. Stewart plays Hirst, a finely dressed gentleman, whose clothing and demeanor indicate success; it becomes clear in a short time that he is an alcoholic; McKellen is Spooner, who is not wearing rags, but appears to be down on his luck. Spooner is visiting Hirst in his home in Hampstead Heath, a section of London. The set is by Stephen Brimson Lewis—He is also responsible for the costumes which do well in delineating the characters. Spooner is wearing a light flowing coat, and McKellen uses it all through the piece as if it is a character. The set is grimly black; in fact, the windows are covered with black drapes, all the furniture is black and Hirst sits in a black tufted wing chair—the only comfortable chair in the room. The two men are talking and drinking. Well, Spooner is the loquacious one; Hirst gets in a few good words. Spooner dominates the conversation. It seems they are writers, poets, who may have gone to the same school at the same time. Schools are very important in England, where many men begin boarding school at the age of 6 and only return home for holidays. The opening line is telling, when Spooner is offered a drink and replies, “Yes, a drink, as it is; absolutely as it is.” The playwright is warning us that there will be no holds barred here. While the two men are talking, two younger men appear: a fast-talking Foster, acted slickly by Billy Crudup, and physically imposing Briggs, played by hefty Shuler Hensley; both give the impression of being criminals, certainly up to no good. They take over the action, stating that they are Hirst’s helpers. At one point, Hirst falls down, collapses on the floor, a tour de force moment for Stewart, and crawls out of the room on his hands and knees. Spooner is locked in the black room all night. It is interesting, because even when he has a chance to escape, he does not. The second act takes a different tack. The two older men recount their sexual encounters graphically. Hirst happily reports that he had a long-standing affair with Spooner’s wife. Spooner counters with a story about a woman who Hirst loved. The chat is raucous and funny, but changes the whole tone of the piece. Then suddenly Spooner begs to stay with Hirst, to work for him. Of course, he is refused. There are lines spoken in the play which sum up the meaning: “No man’s land never changes, never grows older, remain forever icy and silent.” “No Man’s Land” is a lesson in nuance. It will play at the Cort Theatre through March 2, 2014.

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