Variously resembling a judge, a turtle and King Charles III, Steppenwolf co-founder Jeff Perry commands center stage in the theater’s new production of Harold Pinter’s famously confounding mid-1970s play “No Man’s Land.”
Such is the determined intensity, and textual near-perfection, of Perry’s performance, far from the genial characters in which he long has specialized, it suggests this great actor has long been waiting for this play, a richly verbose and metaphoric dance between two London acquaintances, maybe longtime acquaintances, maybe not. Hirst is a guarded and successful writer, Spooner a poet or a fraud or both.
“No Man’s Land” is no “King Lear,” but as Hirst, Perry certainly rushes headlong into each and every one of its existential complications. Perchance we are watching two closed men who met each other cruising on Hampstead Heath; the text references a pub known in the 1970s for its gay clientele. Perhaps we are not watching two characters at all, but merely different sides of the same man. Maybe they’re both already dead or fragments of one another’s imaginations or desires.
Perry is hardly the first actor to lust after this challenge. The work is from a phase in the late, great playwright’s career when he explored the contours of memory and the presence of the past in the present. All of Pinter’s works, of course, are enigmatic and tend to take place in a seemingly innocent setting, in this case a North London home with a very busy drinks cabinet. Pinter’s characters often seem to sense that they are trapped in a play, and that’s true here, as the men refer to blackouts, hoary devices, and things they have done and seen before.
And there is usually a fishing presence. Here it’s two younger men, apparently factotums or henchmen there to serve Hirst, but also virile watchers who seem to be mocking their aging charges. They have the air of spies, or state security officers, which made me remember how much the National Theater of Belarus, a constant thorn in its repressive government’s side, loved and understood Pinter, a champion of freedom.
Les Waters, the deeply experienced director in this production, understands Pinter, too, as does Andrew Boyce, who designed a room that uses Steppenwolf’s famously soaring vertical to excellent effect; the room containing this quartet seems to float in the ether.
This production was billed as a vehicle both for Perry and fellow ensemble member Austin Pendleton, a beloved octogenarian actor and director who left this incredibly difficult role deep into the rehearsal process; he was replaced by Mark Ulrich, his understudy.
I’ve been watching Ulrich for years and have enormous respect for his talent and craft. But at the weekend performance I saw, he still had a way to go, not so much to match Pinter, which he was already doing, but to match Perry, who was simply at another level. I suspect that will change, possibly quite significantly, as the new casting gels, the power structure recalibrates and Ulrich taps into the character’s mercurial power. Spooner has a good time in this Pinter play and once Ulrich has enough security, he’ll be able to entertain himself there, too.
Ulrich is facing a daunting crew up there: Jon Hudson Odom, playing Briggs, had enough of that Pinteresque menace to evoke one of this writer’s main lifelong themes, the uneasy distribution of power in the world and the manifestation of such inequality being thinly veiled hate. Along with the British actor Samuel Roukin, who plays his colleague Foster, Odom’s precisely calibrated glares and gazes remind us that even the once-successful risk of falling into a deep pit, only partly of their own creation and not necessarily of their deserving.
Pinter classics were once frequently produced in Chicago; these days they have become rarities. It’s been a decade since Pendleton memorably directed “The Birthday Party” at Steppenwolf. But the mature audience members at my performance leaned in, all right, clearly well aware they were back at a great Chicago theater, listening to the words of one of the greatest playwrights ever born, a Nobel Laureate working in what was his prime, post youthful comedic verbosity and pre any hint of repetition or calcification.
“No Man’s Land” is a poem, or one long monologue, really, and a self-protected piece that locks itself tight against you trying to fully figure it out. That’s not the aim or the reward with this particular writer.
In this production, though, you sure can clock Perry trying something that feels personally cumulative, if you know what I mean, and doing it with a slow burn followed by a big, sad bang.
Chris Jones is a Tribune critic.
Review: “No Man’s Land” (3 stars)
When: Through Aug. 20
Where: Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted St.
Running time: 2 hours
Tickets: $15-$98 at 312-335-1650 and steppenwolf.org