The Devil’s in the Walls – No Man’s Land at Steppenwolf Theatre

Suspended in front of a blank white slate is a proscenium inside a proscenium (scenic, Andrew Boyce). Two men sit inside, each uniquely unpleasant, each reaching desperately to the other for an emotional connection. Hirst (Jeff Perry), the rich “man of letters” and owner of the decadent home, and Spooner (Mark Ulrich), a random man he met in a bar, proceed to engage in a battle of words. As the scene goes on, I become keenly aware Spooner is taking more than his fair share of the conversation. I seriously thought Spooner was going to grow horns at some point, he’s so whimsical it is hardly trustworthy, but it is fantastic to watch. As Spooner gets more animated, seemingly feeding on Hirst’s apathy, Hirst gets quieter, and harder to understand. I suddenly realize what is happening – he is extremely drunk and slowly shutting down. 

No Man’s Land is a story about four lost souls digging for meaning, for wealth, for love, and constantly coming up short. Pinter’s play is a journey from bar to couch, to the bed to the bar again, with very little sobriety between these checkpoints, especially for Hirst. Once you settle into the idea that nothing is going to happen in the traditional sense, it’s a very enjoyable watch. A staple of experiencing Pinter’s work, all you have to do is pay attention to the nuances. 

And boy, are there nuances.

Foster (Samuel Roukin) is the son of Hirst, also a poet like his father, and equally frustrated. Unlike Hirst, Foster is at the dawn of his potential, held captive by the needs of his father. Roukin’s portrayal is heartfelt, at first, he seems earnest, but we quickly learn he is just as carelessly ambitious as those around him.

Briggs (Jon Hudson Odom), his friend and a mysterious staff member in the home, corroborates this ambition with searing monologues. Jon Odom’s eyes glimmer – usually from upstage because the man knows how to hold center – telling you he knows everything there is to know about the people on this stage. Frankly, Briggs is over it. This tension reaches a delicious climax when Briggs finally refuses an order from Hirst, leading to our first real power shift in the play. 

Power is a hell of a drug for these men, as Foster, Spooner, and Briggs all try to maintain control over Hirst in their own way. His inheritance looms over them all, and it’s evident that Spooner thinks he can sidle in and take it all. When I realize he’s taken control of the entire room, I’m like what?! HOW?! 

In my opinion, those who want to lean into No Man’s Land are best served trying to deduce which of these decidedly sly and crafty men is The Devil. Harold Pinter is playing that game with you, and it helps you track the effects they have on each other. The majority of their banter you’ll come to realize, is basically the pot calling the kettle black as each of them accuse each other of deception and malfeasance. Follow the side-eye, you can get a lot of information from that. Don’t try to get ahead of the play, sometimes an entrance is just a bit, sometimes a cup is just a cup, but remember: In No Man’s Land, God is always God, the walls always talk back, and the demons are in all of us. You feel me? Good. 

Understanding the text could be a bit of a struggle for someone who isn’t used to hearing accents, but they do a good job being as clear as they can be while doing authentic 1970’s British. I always enjoy voice and text coach Gigi Buffington’s ear for specificity. Foster (Samuel Roukin) is played by a British actor, and it was the difference between his natural accent after the performance and his onstage presence that clued me into how precise the accents are. 

There is a time where this play just slithers off the table like a silk cloth and starts doing its own thing. The tight container of the set makes more sense as the story starts to ooze. It is sometime around the top of Act 2. Somehow seeing all these men in excellent suits designed by Janice Pyntel feels more unhinged than watching a drunken Hirst crawl out of the room on all fours. 

No Man’s Land represents the best of a certain era of Steppenwolf, seeing Jeff Perry do a lead role on the mainstage is a rare treat. Seeing a well-funded Pinter play by Les Waters, one of the greatest directors of the American Theatre is extremely rare. Live theatre is undoubtedly about to change forever with staff cuts, recessions, and calls to challenge the form. Pinter plays of this quality and type will likely not be happening like this in the future. This play is fifty years old, and sure to be completely refreshed soon enough.

For example, as a young queer artist I was already thinking how interesting a queer-coded production would be, and how much it makes sense with the text. Every writer, even Pinter, will someday become Shakespeare, malleable and all severed from all but his most pure and relatable intentions. I’m excited for it, but I value the play’s current life equally.

Experience No Man’s Land and offer Pinter a place in your mental archive, as preparation for what’s to come.  

If you are an artist, I recommend seeing this show so that when you move forward into brave new work, you can know what rules you’re breaking and take inspiration from what you enjoyed. If you are an audience member, this show is a great chance to witness a wonderful revitalization of a notable playwright’s work, infused with impressive authenticity. 

No Man’s Land runs until August 20, 2023 at Steppenwolf Theatre Company 

Jeff Perry (Hirst)
Jon Hudson Odom (Briggs)
Samuel Roukin (Foster)
Mark Ulrich (Spooner)

Harold Pinter (Playwright)
Les Waters (Director)
Andrew Boyce (Scenic Design)
Janice Pytel (Costume Design)
Yi Zhao (Lighting Design)
Mikhail Fiksel (Sound Design)
Courtney Abbott (Fight Choreographer)
Gigi Buffington (Company Voice, Text and Dialect Coach)
Tom Pearl (Producing Director),
JC Clementz, CSA (Casting Director)
Laura D. Glenn (Production Stage Manager)
Jaclynn Joslin (Assistant Stage Manager)

Photo by Michael Brosilow (left to right): Samuel Roukin, Jon Hudson Odomand, and Jeff Perry.

BIAS ALERT: Regina Victor has been in collaboration at Steppenwolf as an artist several times throughout the years since 2016.

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