American Repertory Theatre, Cambridge. Directed by David Wheeler
The two chief actors in this production, Paul Benedict and Max Wright, look so much like the two originals of Hirst and Spooner —Ralph Richardson and John Gielgud — that the resemblances seem blithely intentional, almost as if Benedict was “doing a Ralph Richardson” and Wright “a John Gielgud.” Granted that was what they were doing, it added a nice, charming richness to the portrayals without in the least getting in the way of two very fine, finished performances, especially Max Wright’s.
Hirst, an old man, a successful “man of letters,” is all locked up in himself, notably deficient in short-term memory and in effect a prisoner in his own house, looked after by his two henchmen — sorry, house men — Foster and Briggs, peacock and thug, respectively, played with considerable panache and verve by Henry David Clarke and Lewis D. Wheeler. Spooner, in great contrast, is an old man who has lost his moorings. Like Hirst, or so it seems, a graduate of Oxford, he too is a poet but living in reduced circumstances, collecting empties in a Chalk Farm pub. They somehow connect while in a bar — Jack Straw’s Castle, at the far north end of Hampstead Heath; Hirst brings Spooner home for a drink. And as the alcohol flows, the mutual self-defenses and inadvertent self-betrayals that characterize both personages are put on view, in two masterful acts by a dramatist in complete possession of his powers.
David Wheeler has much experience with Pinter, and it shows. This is as masterful an articulation of Pinter’s script as the script itself is of Pinter’s idea; a beautifully finished performance in every respect, full of flamboyant and yet carefully controlled acting, with some of the nicest details you will ever see in a production of a Pinter play — for example, twice, before Spooner, alone on stage sits down to play the piano (which of course is out of tune), he gives a diminutive bow to the audience in anticipation of his playing; an amusing touch that seems exactly right for the character and the moment.
Of course, I can’t help recalling my experience of the Richardson – Gielgud original production, which I had the very good luck to see in London in 1975 after it transferred from the Old Vic to the West End (Wyndham’s, I think). I remember the moment in the first act when Hirst, having drunk far too much scotch, simply keels over. Richardson did it the way his Victorian actor-predecessors did it, by falling backwards in a stiff attitude, body fully erect, so that he hit the stage floor all at once with all parts of the back of his body. I had seen that demonstrated and written about, and it makes for an electrifying, terrifying moment. The present Hirst, Paul Benedict, in contrast, sort of crumpled to the floor, then struggled upright, walked toward the door, and then crumpled again. There is nothing wrong with doing it that way, of course, but the straight-as-a-board image of Richardson’s backwards fall remains in my head permanently.
So, a very fine production, capturing well the double contrast of the two pairs of men, old and young, who, pair by pair, inhabit separate worlds, each with its own common set of dangers, traps, menaces, and threats; despite the generational differences, the two worlds have in common the fact — it is the deepest, most basic, profound fact in Pinter’s world — of the opaque, unknown, unknowable center of consciousness in each character, and in each of us, as we see ourselves mirrored on Pinter’s stage, the “no man’s land” that is simultaneously the battleground where we engage with others and the equally hostile, unfriendly ground inside our own minds and hearts where we strive, and mostly fail, to know ourselves.