Monday, January 2, 2017

Telling Stories: No Man’s Land, The Babylon Line & The Encounter

Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart in No Man's Land. (Photo by Johan Persson)

Harold Pinter wrote No Man’s Land for John Gielgud and Ralph Richardson, who performed it in the West End in 1975. The current revival, with Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart, toured in rep with Waiting for Godot for three years before returning to London; I missed it in New York but caught up with it on HD in the NT Live series last week. The play is constructed around a meeting between two old men, a famous writer, Hirst (Stewart), and a minor, down-on-his-luck poet, Spooner (McKellen). Hirst has picked Spooner up at a pub and invited him to his posh Hampstead home for a drink, where Foster (Damien Molony) and Briggs (Owen Teale), his two manservants, who are also his bodyguards and appear to be gangsters (and perhaps also lovers), treat Spooner alternately as an intruder, a prisoner and a house guest. He spends the night locked in the living room; the next morning Hirst, whose memory is failing, claims to recognize him from their Oxford days – and even to have slept with his wife – but calls him by a different name. Spooner goes along with the misapprehension, which suits his purposes. Eventually he attempts to sell himself as a candidate for the post of Hirst’s secretary.

The plot is typically slight and ambiguous, and it touches on some of Pinter’s favorite themes (the deceptive quality of memory, the fluid nature of relationships, infidelity, alcohol as an omnipresent feature of existence) as well as resurrecting the sinister teddy-boy duo from The Room. What makes it unlike other Pinter plays is that it’s about old men. Pairing it with Godot was logical since it seems to be Pinter’s tribute to Samuel Beckett, though in terms of language, Pinter moves in the opposite direction: toward excess rather than economy. In act one Spooner narrates volubly and compulsively, in the form of anecdotes and recollections, while Hirst mostly listens; in act two their positions are reversed, with Hirst relating tales of their alleged university days and his affair with the wife of his unaware comrade, to which Spooner responds mostly in expressive silences. (At least, they’re expressive when McKellen plays them.)

Sean Mathis’ production showcases the actors, which is all it can do, really: Beckettian inspiration or not, No Man’s Land isn’t much of a play, and what is there in the first act dribbles away in the second to a series of comedy sketches. Stewart is commanding, and he does something quite marvelous with a scene in which Hirst thinks about his long-lost (presumably dead) wife. McKellen invents so much for his character, both physically and vocally, that he’s as much wizard as actor. He pronounces a simple word like “concrete” so that the “k” sound at the beginning sounds like a set of knuckles hitting a wooden block and turns the “b” on the last syllable of “intolerable” into a series of tiny bubbles. He removes a little stick from his breast pocket and taps his whisky glass so that it rings like a tuning fork. He conveys a spectrum of minuscule digestive problems through a combination of small noises and hilarious facial tics. McKellen has scored every speech like a piece of music, and his physicality is continually wondrous. The set by Stephen Brimson Lewis is circular, and Mathis’ staging idea is to have all four characters circumscribe it as if it were tipped at a precarious angle and they were in danger of falling off the edge. (I kept thinking of the sequence on the broken carousel at the climax of Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train.) All four of the actors manage this trick amusingly, and Stewart poignantly at one point, when he crawls to the door on his hands and knees, this celebrity aristocrat suddenly reduced to a toddler. But McKellen does it masterfully, leaning forward or sideways and then twisting himself backwards like a pulled elastic.

Teale, his long face bewhiskered, and Molony give extremely skillful performances, but in comparison with the two elder statesmen with whom they share the stage they (particularly Molony) have to work harder for their effects. That’s to be expected: you have to act for a long time to achieve the kind of ease you see in McKellen and Stewart, two knights slipping into roles originated by two other knights. But as admirable as the acting is throughout, the play lets you down when what seems intriguing in the first act leads to a dead end in the second.

Josh Radnor and Elizabeth Reaser in The Babylon Line. (Photo by Jeremy Danie)l

Richard Greenberg’s The Babylon Line (at Lincoln Center’s Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater), is structured as a reminiscence delivered by the protagonist, which is exactly the way he set up his last play, Our Mother’s Brief Affair. This time the narrator is Aaron Port (Josh Radnor), recalling the first creative writing class he taught to a group of adults in Levittown in 1967, while he himself was struggling to overcome writer’s block. His small group consists of three well-to-do Jewish matrons (Randy Graff, Maddie Corman and Julie Halston), mainstays of the local community, all of whom wind up in the room because the classes they really planned on taking are full; a retired man (Frank Wood) whose sole reason for wanting to write is to get down a war experience that has haunted him; an affectless young man (Michael Oberholtzer) who claims to be laboring on a “magnum opus” but never brings any writing to class; and Joan Dellamond (Elizabeth Reaser), a mysterious woman in her thirties who talks like a Tennessee Williams character – and with a southern accent – and flirts shamelessly with Aaron after class. Both are married; he won’t bite – not even during a snowstorm, when she goes so far as to suggest they put up at a hotel overnight. (The title of the play alludes to the train line that carries Aaron from Manhattan to Long Island every week.) On principle Aaron refuses to oblige his students to submit writing or even to tell them what to write about, so except for Jack’s war reminiscence, which seems to liberate him from producing anything further, the sessions don’t yield much, until Joan shows up one week with a comic-absurdist story with a marked Freudian bent that literally drives the most conservative member of the class, the controlling Mrs. Cohen (Graff), out of the room. (That’s the first-act curtain.)

Though Joan eventually praises Aaron for having taught them something of value even though his explicit approach is to refuse to act as a teacher, he really doesn’t do much during these sessions. It’s Joan who stirs them up, both by refusing to socialize with the other ladies and by shocking them with her pieces. The play isn’t about education; it isn’t even about the edge-of-romantic relationship between her and Aaron. It’s about telling stories, though Greenberg doesn’t make that idea clear until the wind-up, when, after we hear the contributions of some of the other students, Aaron tells us stories about them – about their crazy, unpredictable lives after the class is over. These tales are full of remarkable coincidences, the way John Guare’s plays are, although given the premise of The Babylon Line, I’m not sure that we’re supposed to take them at face value – nor do I think it matters. One of them spirals straight into the plot premise of Our Mother’s Brief Affair.

The Babylon Line is clever and unusual, but I had the same problem with it I often have with Greenberg’s plays: a sort of willful remoteness, a hothouse quality that keeps me, at least, from engaging with them emotionally. (That wasn’t the case with Our Mother’s Brief Affair, though it fell apart in the second act.) The production is well directed by Terry Kinney, and most of the actors manage the poetic-realist style skillfully; the only ones I had difficulty believing in were Wood and Reaser, both of whom seem to be reaching too far for their effects, though the shortcomings of her performance are mitigated by the actress’ considerable charm.

Simon McBurney in The Encounter. (Photo: Alastair Muir)

Co-conceived (with Kirsty Housley), directed and performed (solo) by Simon McBurney, the artistic director of England’s Complicite theatre company, The Encounter, now on Broadway, adapts Petru Popescu’s book Amazon Beaming, about the adventure of the photographer Loren McIntire in the Amazon jungle, where he claimed he learned from the Mayoruna tribe how to communicate telepathically. For two intermissionless hours, McBurney plays both himself, the creator of the piece, and McIntire, and though I’ve often found his character work in movies unconvincingly flamboyant, here he’s so precisely focused, so energetic, so warm and so funny that he won me over completely. (The now almost requisite standing ovations at professional theatres generally irritate me, but I was happy to get to my feet for McBurney.) I can’t say that I found the play moving or profound, but it’s a richly entertaining theatrical experience. Except for the opening few minutes, you hear the show through headphones attached to the back of your seat, and the complex sound design by Gareth Fry and Pete Malkin is so loaded with surprises that I felt, at the end of the two hours, as if I’d been grinning non-stop. McBurney is a raconteur well worth spending an evening with.

 Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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