- The Washington Times - Friday, July 25, 2003

The theme of this year’s Potomac Theatre Project (the strongest and most vital edition of the annual theater festival yet) is the interrelationship of creativity, madness and self-destruction, a theme plumbed to the remote inner hollows of the soul in Harold Pinter’s “No Man’s Land.”

This bleak, funny play has its element of self-annihilation — alcohol — but its silken creepiness comes from its depiction of madness and creativity in life’s twilight years. Mr. Pinter supposedly wrote the play in 1974 out of fear, a nightmarish vision of himself as an isolated, sodden, has-been artist.

Seeing yourself as the two main characters, Spooner (Alan Wade) and Hirst (Richard Pilcher) would be enough to scare the cobwebs and complacency out of any writer or creative type.

Spooner is a simpering, falsely hale poet who had a few negligible glories and is now down on his luck and living purely off the good nature of others. Hirst is wealthy and upper class, clearly a respected success at one time in his literary career. Now he sits in his gracious house in Hampstead Heath in a haze of scotch and vodka, not knowing or caring whether it is day or night. He is both taken care of — and gently preyed upon — by two young men (Jesse Hooker and Peter Wylie) who are either hired guns or aspiring writers, hard to tell which.

Spooner has latched onto Hirst for an evening of steady cocktails and self-aggrandizing chatter.

Instead, as the alcohol flows, the night turns into Hirst’s cri de coeur. In this dark, hallucinatory night of the soul, reality and regret pool into puddles of pity and self-doubt. Hirst questions how he reached such a state, the price of smugness and the reliability of memory.

Mr. Pinter has a reputation as an enigmatic sad-sack, but done correctly (and director Richard Romagnoli strikes the right meditative, parodic tone) his plays can be quite comical. The first act comes off like a first-rate farce, as Spooner flits around the drawing room trying to be coy and amusing, while Hirst responds so curtly and monosyllabically that his replies are almost non sequiturs. Mr. Pilcher’s timing and taciturnity are a priceless contrast to Mr. Wade’s fey nattering.

Hirst’s composure cracks when the drinks kick in and he passes out, but not before drunkenly intoning the line “I am on the last lap of a race I had long forgotten to run.” When he awakens shortly after, the bonhomie of the early evening has dissolved and the mind-bending aspects have taken over.

You get the feeling that Spooner and Hirst are caught in some sort of purgatory where they will keep doing and saying the same things over and over. Neither man will ever leave that room, that house — they are trapped in an endless loop of unfulfilled dreams and remorse.

The two characters could also be seen as the twin sides of the creative life gone sour. Hirst represents the outwardly successful man of letters who, in private, is an empty shell — morally, spiritually and imaginatively bankrupt. Spooner is the shabby poet who never quite made it, living vicariously through more esteemed writers, seeking a small patch of reflected glory in which to bask.

With such a harrowing vision of the creative life, you wonder how Mr. Pinter gets up in the morning.

“No Man’s Land” soars as a dolorous duet between these two men, who just might be one man — Hirst, examining his life choices amid a rising current of uncertainty. Old hands Mr. Wade (both dandified and forlornly pathetic as Spooner) and Mr. Pilcher attack Mr. Pinter’s obtuse dialogue with precision and appetite.

“There is a gap in me,” Mr. Pilcher cries at one point. “I can’t fill it.” At this moment, the play goes beyond being about artists and writers and the compromises they make. It becomes about being human, having that null space deep inside you that yearns to be filled.


WHAT: “No Man’s Land”

WHERE: Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road, Olney

WHEN: Playing in repertory Sundays through Saturdays with “Crave” and “Piaf” at the Potomac Theatre Project. Through Aug. 10



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