Review: In Steppenwolf’s No Man’s Land, Four Characters Act Out Pinter’s Menacing Puzzle

Steppenwolf Theatre’s production of Harold Pinter’s No Man’s Land is meticulously staged and performed by an excellent cast. Director Les Waters’ four actors do a masterful job with Pinter’s puzzling 1974 script.  

The problem is that the play, while the script is often humorous or poetic, is confusing and difficult to derive meaning from. While there is humor and occasional warmth, existential dread defines the mood throughout. The four characters are all lost boys. The phrase “no man’s land” is mentioned several times, in this vein: No man’s land “never moves, never changes, never grows older… remains forever icy and chill.” 

As the play opens, two men have arrived in the large and stately drawing room of Hirst, a wealthy man of letters (played with a brittle charm by Steppenwolf co-founder Jeff Perry). The loquacious guest that Hirst has invited from the pub is Spooner, a down-at-the-heels, unsuccessful poet. (Mark Ulrich imbues this role with a satisfying variety of moods.) They continue their night of heavy drinking, now mostly vodka and scotch, straight up or “as it is.” The conversation is one-sided; Hirst is mostly silent. Then Hirst collapses and crawls out of the room. Abruptly Briggs and Foster, two thuggish men, arrive, announcing themselves as part of the household but bringing a sense of menace to the scene. Briggs (Jon Hudson Odom, but played by understudy Josh Odor at the performance I saw) apparently is Hirst’s manservant; his main role seems to be keeping the glasses full. Foster (Samuel Roukin) announces himself as the host’s son but that does not seem to be true.

Samuel Roukin, Jon Hudson Odom and Jeff Perry. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

Hirst returns in pajamas and dressing gown and greets Spooner as a treasured old friend; they trade reminiscences about old drinking days. Hirst doesn’t know how long he slept or what day it is. Drinking and conversation continue. In act two, the menace deepens. The characters are in some mysterious limbo between nightmare and reality. But there’s no plot, just the comings and goings of Hirst and the two thugs, who dress as proper gentlemen in act two. Spooner, without explanation, is locked in the sitting room alone at one point.

Identities are slippery. It’s never clear how or if the characters are related or connected. 

Hirst Is the name of the character in the program and in the script. But no one ever mentions his name and he never introduces himself to anyone. 

All four characters are named for cricket players—because Pinter was a player of cricket and other sport and continued to be a fan in adulthood. 

Hirst is successful and well dressed. Spooner, the failed poet, is dressed shabbily, with unshined shoes. Is he Hirst’s failed twin, his alter ego?

After seeing the play and then reading the script, I wanted to go back and see the play again, to get answers to my questions. It’s often valuable to see a renowned play more than once. But you shouldn’t have to see it twice to appreciate it. 

Ulrich and Perry. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

Hirst’s stately drawing room with its wall of books was designed by Andrew Boyce and greatly enhanced by Yi Zhao’s brilliant lighting design, matched by Mikhail Fiksel’s sound design. Costumes are by Janice Pytel. Laura D. Glenn is production stage manager.

Some of Pinter’s plays are considered comedies of menace. In The Birthday Party (last staged by Steppenwolf in 2013), there is direct menace by two characters against a third. But in No Man’s Land, the menace is indirect—by some of the characters and by the way director Waters ends both acts. 

No Man’s Land is certainly absurdist theater. It's sometimes categorized as a Pinter “memory play,” along with Betrayal, a story of marital deception. But they are very different plays. Betrayal, staged here by Raven Theatre in 2016, also had a stunning Broadway run in 2019. The play‘s three characters may deceive us as they do their partners but their story, structured in chronological reverse order, is easy to follow. As are the other Pinter plays I have seen. The Birthday Party, The Caretaker, The Homecoming

During his 50-year career, Pinter wrote 29 plays, plus dozens of screenplays. He also directed and acted in radio, TV, stage and film productions of his own works and works by others. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2005. 

A fitting coda to this review of No Man’s Land is Pinter’s introduction to a volume of his collected plays. Pinter quotes Samuel Beckett: “The fact would seem to be, if in my situation one may speak of facts, not only that I shall have to speak of things of which I cannot speak, but also, which is even more interesting, but also that I, which is if possible even more interesting, that I shall have to, I forget, no matter.” 

As Pinter did, I rest my case. 

No Man’s Land continues at Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted St., through August 20. Running time is two hours with one intermission. Tickets are $20-$98.

For more information on this and other plays, see theatreinchicago.com.

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Nancy S Bishop

Nancy S. Bishop is publisher and Stages editor of Third Coast Review. She’s a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and a 2014 Fellow of the National Critics Institute at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center. You can read her personal writing on pop culture at nancybishopsjournal.com, and follow her on Twitter @nsbishop. She also writes about film, books, art, architecture and design.