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‘No Man’s Land’ review: Smart at his stunning best in the show Steppenwolf

I have a favorite cartoon “New Yorker”, by Barbara Smaller. An empathetic interior designer shares with a client that “Of course, we can go for thrift and minimalism, but not within your budget.”

The joke is funny because it sounds true: the less, the more perfect. You can’t hide anything when everything stands out.

So it is with the play by Nobel Laureate Harold Pinter. He provides the language, including a large number of planned pauses and some of his basic but often contradictory character details. Plots, reserves. Stage direction, minimalist to the extreme. But when done right, his writing creates a sense of mystery and threat and at times hopelessness and hopelessness. His razor-sharp wit and frequent shifts in the balance of power make his dramas very funny, especially considering that there are no proper jokes in them.

Those qualities, the subtle but convincing subtext that fuels innocence, must be created by the actors under the guidance of the director. There is literally no way for the actors to hide anything, and Pinter’s words must be interpreted – but not over-interpreted! – to evoke the meaning of deliberately oblique. There are many acting choices to be made.

So imagine you’re the understudy for one of Pinter’s most demanding roles and, during the preview, you have to go in permanently for a well-known actor whose anticipated performance will almost certainly be a factor in choosing the game to begin with.

Such was the situation of stunt actor-now-lead Mark Ulrich in Steppenwolf’s theatrical production of Pinter’s 1975 play “No Man’s Land.” In a truly impressive display of acting craft, Ulrich has taken on the role of Spooner – a sixty-something, unsuccessful poet, equally self-deprecating parts and self-deprecating sketches – from Austin Pendleton, who left the production recently for personal reasons.

Jeff Perry, co-founder of Steppenwolf and also the raison d’être for the production, plays another major role, Hirst, who is described as a successful “typewriter”. That quality is emphasized in Andrew Boyce’s set design, which added a beautiful wall of books to Hirst’s simply furnished but very elegant room where the entire show took place.

Samuel Roukin (from left), Jon Hudson Odom and Jeff Perry at the Steppenwolf Theater reenacting Harold Pinter’s “No Man’s Land”.

Neither plot is precise unless you consider alcohol consumption as the storyline. Hirst, also in his 60s, doesn’t like to drink alone, so, whether by invitation or just tagging along, Spooner has joined him for lots (and lots) of whiskey accompanied by conversation. Their dialogue – mostly Spooner in the beginning – bounces freely from subject to subject, occasionally through apparent non-sequitur.

It is an abstract work, absurd if you will call it that, grounded in the realities of aging but equally informed by the instability of memory and dreams. Hirst may or may not know Spooner. At one moment, they refer to each other as strangers, at another as old university friends. Maybe Hirst had dementia and Spooner just followed suit, if you want to find a realistic interpretation. Or maybe Pinter operates in multiple planes of reality. Either way, their real or imagined past becomes the source for some always entertaining Pinteresque power shifts, in this case emphasized by Janice Pytel’s costume choice, transforming Hirst from a tweed jacket in Act I to a pinstriped power suit in Act II.

The aging main character is joined sporadically by two younger men, Briggs (Jon Hudson Odom) and Foster (Samuel Roukin), who appear to serve Hirst but may also take advantage of him. You spend the game wondering about everyone’s intentions, but always sure they’re selfless.

There isn’t, at least, the lurking cost involved in the fun but precarious give-and-take between Perry and Ulrich. But Ulrich’s performance will mature as he has more time in the role, as he fleshes out Spooner’s long monologue so every word counts. That might take this production to another level.

Perry’s timing, with the advantage of full rehearsal, has been honed to deliciously comic effect, his expressions of Clever language — some of the finest modern drama — nimble and incisive. The actor has mined contradictions and consistency in a character whose mood swings drastically. And he makes some really bold choices, including delivering parts of the monologue, face-up, to the wallpaper.

What’s perhaps most surprising here is that the casting dynamics ended up placing a greater emphasis than usual on the supporting characters, and in this production, under the direction of Les Waters, excelled so much.

Odom and Roukin bring rich undercurrent layers to Pinter’s menacing agility. Odom had a breakthrough year with very different but equally outstanding performances here and in “Toni Stone” at the Goodman Theatre. And British actor Roukin really upped the ante for cultural authenticity.

These two terrific actors are responsible for the last few moments, doing a bit of Beckettian vaudeville and making us question whether this is a world of puns and nothing but.

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