The long friendship between Artists Repertory Theatre Artistic Director Allen Nause and Academy Award winner William Hurt pays awesome dividends for the Portland theater community: Every few years Hurt drops by to do a show. And of the three plays I've seen Hurt in (2010's Long Day's Journey into Night and 2007's Vanya), it's No Man's Land that gives the audience the closest, most intimate look at the actor in action.
Hurt plays Spooner, a struggling poet whose station in life is entirely summed up by his shabby, badly rumpled linen suit. He's stumbled into the home of a fellow poet, the far more successful Hirst (Nause), for a drink or 12—the two men put away a shocking amount of booze in the show's first scene.
For better and worse, Hurt's commitment to his drunken, disheveled character is such that he occasionally drifts into total incoherence, while Nause's character is so blind drunk he's almost a cipher. As the two men discuss their mutual friendships and past relationships, it's impossible to determine which memories are real and which are imagined. (Cue: observation about the ephemeral nature of memory.) This, coupled with dense, digressive dialogue that's quite frequently slurred, makes the first scene difficult to follow, much less understand.
When Hirst's manservants bust in—one of whom is played by Hurt's real-life son, Alex Hurt, the other by local standout Tim True—they provide both a welcome jolt of focus and some suggestion of conflict, as the two men bristle at Spooner's efforts to insinuate himself with Hirst. But while the show's second act begins with a new day—breakfast! eggs!—any promise of a new beginning is quickly ground into the same drunken haze as the day before.
There's no disputing that this show is well produced, from the cast's committed performances to director John Dillon's interpretation of playwright Harold Pinter's famously detailed stage directions. But while it's easy to recognize the artistry in Artist Rep's production, I found it difficult to connect with its content. Certain themes emerge—memory, aging, the ossifying effects of success—but No Man's Land is ultimately a play very much of its time and place, reflecting both the impact of World War II on British society, and the nuances of the class system. Hirst and Spooner are both veterans and both poets, harkening to the strong British tradition of war poetry as well as shades of T.S. Eliot's modernist despair. (During one of the show's odder moments, Hirst twice flops to the ground on his way out the door. Spooner's observation is pure knock-off Eliot: "I have known this before. The exit through the door, by way of belly and floor.") It is a play worth reading before you see it: Pinter is too dense to fully absorb on the first go-around, and wondering what the hell is happening distracts from fully absorbing the performances that are the real reason to see this show.