William Hurt is back in town, performing alongside his old friend Allen Nause in what's become a regular gig for the Oscar-winning actor. This time—his fourth on Artists Rep's stage—he's doing Pinter, and that means drinking, menace and mystery.
No Man's Land is, like most of Pinter's mid-career plays, about memory. Specifically, it's about what can happen when you poison yourself with so much liquor that you no longer have any. Hurt plays Spooner, a washed-up old poet who finds himself in the stately sitting room of Hirst, a far more successful writer and former classmate, having run into the latter at a pub. The play begins with the offer of a drink, and the consumption of whiskey is the primary occupation of its characters throughout its two hours. Hirst, we soon learn, has drunk himself into a state of pitiable dementia, and the audience is made to share in his confusion. Is Spooner an innocent visitor or a con man? Are Hirst's companions, the "vagabond cock" Foster (Hurt's son Alex) and crisp-munching butler, Briggs (Tim True), servants, bodyguards, lovers or jailers? Director John Dillon's sure-handed blocking indicates he has some idea, but he declines to share it with us. Speculating over the nature of these four men's relationships was most of what held my attention through the final, slow fade.
For his Spooner, a bold but cowardly sad sack, Hurt employs his usual technique of head-wagging and grumbling as though his cheeks were filled with ball bearings. It suits the character well enough, but I'm beginning to wonder if he's capable of clear enunciation. Nause is more moving as the brilliant mind tragically spoilt by drink, his faculties fading in and out, but the character, a sort of villainous Kenneth Tynan, is so repugnant that we feel no pity for him.
I marvel at Pinter's facility with language, but I find his plays heartless. Maybe it's my age. Whether on the page or the stage, they make me feel only suffocation. Dillon's production holds up well against the BBC's recording of the original—although Hurt isn't nearly so slick as John Gielgud—but I can't say I enjoyed it.
SEE IT: 7:30 pm Tuesdays-Saturdays, 2 and 7:30 pm Sundays at Artists Repertory Theatre, 1515 SW Morrison St., 241-1278, artistsrep.org. Closes Nov. 6. $35-$65, $25 students.