CAMBRIDGE -- The landscape of "No Man's Land" is at once deceptively familiar and profoundly strange. It is a handsomely furnished room in London, stocked with crystal decanters and leather-bound volumes; it is the looming emptiness that bookends men's lives. It is, in short, the dark, disorienting, icily amusing, and piercingly illuminated space inside Harold Pinter's head.
It's hard to imagine a more seasoned and reassuring guide to this daunting territory than David Wheeler. This is the 14th Pinter play Wheeler has directed, and his third at the American Repertory Theatre.
Pinter's famous pauses and silences lie inert on the page until an insightful director helps his actors explore the worlds they contain; reading Pinter, even more than most playwrights, is like looking at a map and trying to see the mountains. It helps immeasurably to have a director who has traveled this way many times before.
It also helps to have actors who know the lay of the land, and at the ART Wheeler has assembled a four-man cast of remarkable perception, strength, and delicacy. In the roles of two aging writers (originally played by Ralph Richardson and John Gielgud, leaving some fairly huge shoes to fill), we have Paul Benedict, as the mysterious and faintly mystified host, Hirst, and Max Wright as Spooner, the more disheveled and less successful poet who has apparently come home with Hirst after meeting him in a pub.
"Apparently" is necessary because Pinter, to the audible frustration of some audience members, never actually explains who these men are, either to themselves or to each other. Nor does he clarify the positions of the two vaguely menacing younger men who soon join this peculiar soiree: Foster, who introduces himself as Hirst's son but never says why he has a different surname, and Briggs, a tougher bloke who, like Foster, seems more likely a captor, a parasitic lodger, or a pickup than a genuine loved one.
On the other hand, it's possible that something else entirely is going on. Maybe Hirst is completely senile, and that's why he keeps calling the others by different names. Then again, maybe Spooner really is named Charles Wetherby and really did know Hirst at Oxford, and maybe they're just toying with the younger guys. Or maybe Foster and Briggs are some version, real or remembered, of the older men's younger selves -- an option that's nicely hinted at, in one of several subtle costuming touches by David Reynoso, by having Briggs enter wearing a beret identical to Spooner's.
Or maybe, ultimately, the entire play is taking place not inside Pinter's head but inside Hirst's: It's just possible, though not provable, that all three other characters are figments of Hirst's imagination, conjured from the dreams, memories, and faded photographs that form the core of his most significant speeches. Maybe this is all the inebriated dream of a dying man. It's interesting, isn't it, that Hirst ("hearsed"?) is never named except in the stage directions? And it's indisputable that he says, of his past, "It's gone. Did it exist? It's gone. It never existed. It remains."
Hirst's next line is "I am sitting here forever," a remark that may provoke exasperation and fear among those spectators who long for clarity, resolution, and release. Asking that of Pinter is a bit like wishing Beckett would just cheer up. But if you go in knowing that you will not know -- and willing to grant Pinter his maddeningly exclusive interest in male experience -- "No Man's Land" can open up into a provocative reflection on loneliness, aging, and our inevitable appointment with death.
If for nothing else, this production is essential viewing because of the magnificently layered, deeply humane performance by Max Wright. His Spooner is funny, desperate, and real. To focus on just one aspect of Wright's achievement, the way he creates a unique character through the infinitely varied and precise use of his hands is in itself a master class in the actor's art.
That's not to slight his companions in Pinter's loneliness. Benedict infuses Hirst with complexity and pleasingly baffling ambiguity; if we never know quite who this man is, we still can't stop thinking about him. Second-year ART Institute student Henry David Clarke beautifully balances threat and grace as the foppish Foster, and Lewis D. Wheeler, who had to audition for his father to get the part, more than justifies his selection: His Briggs is funny, mean, and riveting.
Some annoying whines from the sound system marred parts of opening night, but otherwise David Remedios provides appropriately insidious, ominous music -- and Wright himself adds a grace note to Spooner's attempts to ingratiate himself by playing the piano. Set designer J. Michael Griggs places the piano, like the other elegant appointments of the room, within a vast emptiness, so that the particularity and realism of the wood-and-marble bar, the leather chair, the bookcase, all take on a slightly surreal air -- like a parlor in space.
That's exactly right. And when, briefly, Briggs throws back the monumental velvet curtains to let in Kenneth Helvig's beautifully designed daylight, it makes the same kind of senseless sense to see that, while sunbeams warm the floor, the windows remain pitch black. It's impossible. It's inevitable. It's Pinterland.
Louise Kennedy can be reached at email@example.com.