Regional Reviews: Chicago
No Man's Land
As Steppenwolf's Artistic Directors Glen Davis and Audrey Francis declare in their program notes, "To attempt a faithful description of this play is a daunting task." It is relatively safe to say that it features four men and two generations, it is set in a well-appointed British country house, and some amount of time passes. Beyond this, little is certain.
The men of the older generation may be recent acquaintances or old schoolmates. They may or may not be poets. The men of the younger generation are (probably) employees of the owner of the country house, though the nature and origins of the employment are murky and contested. And, of course, all of this matters only in so far as the truths and lies and tangents give Pinter and the actors license to spend two hours playing with language.
In support of that virtuosic, the production offers a thought-provoking design. On the surface, the scenic design by Andrew Boyce reads as simply attractive and appropriate. The lone set is the library or study of Hirst, the owner of the house. Boyce sets two leather wingback chairs just left of center stage, separated by a table. Two straight-backed chairs face one another at the opposite ends of the set, downstage. The only other furnishings are a handful of lamps, a sideboard with a heavy black telephone behind the leather chairs, and later a rolling breakfast cart and ice bucket stand.
The stage right wall is floor-to-ceiling shelves filled with old-looking leather-bound books. There's a library ladder upstage and a mirror-backed bar recessed in the center of the shelves. The upstage wall is papered floor to ceiling in green brocade, and the stage left wall has heavy green curtains and the intermittent suggestion of a window. The ceiling has a medallion and a chandelier hanging roughly over the table.
What's striking about the scenic design, which sounds utterly unremarkable in these details, is the fact that Boyce has created this set within an open-fronted box. All around this is a strip of muted gray-white that is lit with something mimicking work lights throughout the play. In effect, this suggests that these men and this language exist within a diorama or a shadowbox or perhaps an old tube television set. When the upstage door opens for the first time, as Hirst comically crawls out of the room, the blank expanse that confronts the audience and surrounds this single room is eerie and powerful. In keeping with this, although the demands of the lighting and sound design (Yi Zhao and Mikhail Fiksel, respectively) are, or at least seem, minimal, they are perfectly executed and maintain the set's productively troubling vibe.
Janice Pytel's costumes have the luxury of leaning into the cutting humor and cleverness of text, and clearly Pytel delights in the opportunity. Early on, Hirst is a visual mishmash of checks, stripes slanting in all directions, and almost hidden argyle. His silk robe and pajamas do not disappoint in being absolutely correct and proper in cut, fabric and composition, and a strange disaster in their loud colors and patterns. His pin-striped double-breasted suit at the play's end completes the visual arc in its wonderful cartoonishness. Spooner, in contrast, doesn't so much occupy as coexist with his gray, rumpled suit with its jacket and pants that seem subtly not to match.
Pytel is equally playful (and just as successful) in dressing Foster and Briggs. Foster's diagonally striped shirt and brown leather jacket paired with vertically striped slacks both echo and clash with Hirst, whereas the long, sleek leather coat and Cuban heels for Briggs suggest a different energy and type of masculinity altogether. These looks are well married to the characters' linked but distinct roles within the drama, as well as the actors' well-considered approaches to the dialogue.
As impressive as the design is, from top to bottom, it is rightly and definitely outshone by the performances. As Hirst, John Perry embraces the silliness and physical comedy that often lands on the far side of Monty Python in terms of how broad it is, and yet he commands the room so convincingly in the character's more lucid (or perhaps temporarily sober) moments, that it is believable when the others snap to, and there are real stakes when they resist.
Mark Ulrich's Spooner is a worthy match for Perry's Hirst. This is a feat in and of itself, and all the more impressive given that Ulrich only very recently stepped into the role. He imbues Spooner with an anxious, coiled energy that suggests an athletic young man straining to break free of his older self. Also noteworthy is Ulrich's relish for Spooner's filthier dialogue, which had audience members of all ages gasping and blushing with delight at the performance I attended.
As Foster, Samuel Roukin both verbally and physically plows his way into the scene with a completely unexpected oddball energy. As his earliest lines tumble out, they manufacture a roller coaster moment where it seems as if the performance might be irreconcilable with those of Perry and Ulrich (with whom we spend the first long stretch of the play), only to have his take on the language, the humor, the very meaning (if any) of everything slot delightfully into place, peeling back another layer of the appeal of Pinter's absurdity.
As Briggs, Jon Hudson Odom has both so little and so much to do. Briggs is the tightly wound spring to Foster's spent, sagging jack-in-the-box. Odom's body language and facial expressions, paired with razor-sharp delivery, come together to make this performance an ingredient vital to the success of a play that, even for Pinter, demands that the actors observe and react to one another with precision timing.
No Man's Land runs through August 20, 2023, at Steppenwolf Theatre Company, Downstairs Theater, 1650 N. Halsted St., Chicago IL. For tickets and information, please visit steppenwolf.org or call 312-335-1650.