Reviewed by Judy Richter
Guided by director Sean Mathias, actors Ian McKellen, Patrick Stewart, Billy Crudup and Shuler Hensley successfully navigate the ambiguities of Pinter's 1975 play.
It opens as the impeccably tailored Hirst (Stewart) serves a drink to the rumpled Spooner (McKellen ), who has apparently been invited to Hirst's home after running into him at a nearby pub. As Hirst becomes staggeringly drunk, his two manservants, Foster (Crudup) and Briggs (Hensley), assist him, leaving Spooner locked in the drawing room overnight.
As the two-act play progresses, one can't be sure what's true and what isn't. What is clear, however, is the subtle air of menace that permeates the production, starting with the foreboding original music by sound designers Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen.
The manservants, Foster and Briggs, are especially menacing -- Foster because he's so slick and Briggs because he's so big and stolid..
Hirst and Spooner both claim to be poets and may or may not have known each other at Oxford. In one scene, Hirst has no idea who Spooner is, yet in another he goes into great detail about an affair he may have had with Spooner's late wife. This subtle juggling for power among the various characters is a Pinter hallmark, along with the ambiguities and menace.
Bay Area audiences last saw McKellen as the title character in a memorable production of Shakespeare's "Richard III" in San Francisco. Here he's a far different man, apparently down on his luck and seemingly unsure of himself as he nervously shifts from one foot to the other and holds his coat throughout most of the play.
One would be hard-pressed to say exactly what the play is about or what actually happens, but it doesn't matter because this production conveys the subtexts of Pinter's writing, complete with his trademark pauses. The actors and director also mine the humor in the writing, relieving some of the tension.
The character-specific costumes are by Stephen Brimson Lewis, who also designed the spare but dignified set. The lighting is by Peter Kaczorowski.
After it completes its limited run in Berkeley, this production will move to Broadway, where it will be presented in rotating repertory with Samuel Beckett's "Waiting for Godot," also featuring McKellen and Stewart.
For now, Bay Area audiences can enjoy "No Man's Land" through Aug. 31.
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