This season, the small-budget troupe WSC Avant Bard lost its residency in Rosslyn’s Artisphere. They’re now on the lam. They’ve stopped briefly at Theatre on the Run, an 85-seat space in Shirlington that’s doing wonders for the claustrophobic effect in Harold Pinter’s “No Man’s Land.”
The show is directed by new WSC-AB head Tom Prewitt, and it’s a handsome mess of strewn newspapers, books and half-empty liquor bottles. The low, arched ceiling by designer Steven T. Royal Jr. makes the room feel like a cave, and there is something sinister in the way the floor slopes into the back wall like a skateboard ramp. The nightclub lighting by Joseph R. Walls features an atmospheric mishmash of lamps that are generally kept dim.
It’s all a bit seedy and dangerous, which suits Pinter’s notably mysterious and queer “No Man’s Land.” The 1975 drama focuses on two older literary men: Hirst, who apparently owns and runs the place, and a chatty visitor named Spooner. As the deeply English figures talk in rambling circles about school and war and women, Pinter gives you mixed ideas that Spooner is held captive, and that he wants to stay, and that he’s an intruder threatening the roles of Hirst’s two minions, Foster and Briggs.
This is vintage WSC-AB — a tough, heady play produced with heart, wit and empty pockets. The show is anchored by company founders (from two decades ago) Brian Hemmingsen as Hirst and Christopher Henley as Spooner, and they are comfortable with the drama’s pauses, dark jokes and inexplicable bits. They’ve been Pintering for years, with 19 of his plays between them.
The angular Henley makes Spooner something of a clown as he jabbers on and as both characters drink like sailors (surely there are three dozen bottles on the tiny stage). Henley’s trousers are too short, his feet are often in a balletic first position, and one hand rests weirdly on his hip, cocking his elbow out. This Spooner is giving a dandy’s performance as he tries to insinuate himself into what plainly strikes him as an appealing situation.
As Hirst, the big-framed Hemmingsen beams and booms with a drunkenness that’s part liquor, part the decay of age. “You find me in the last lap of a race I had long forgotten to run,” Hirst says, and as the character riffles through memories and banters aggressively with Spooner, Hemmingsen impressively controls the confusion. It’s a sharp portrayal of a character that mentally is there and yet not there.
The territorial fight grows a little cartoonish with Frank Britton’s ultrarefined Foster and Bruce Alan Rauscher’s far too obvious and jokey Briggs. Inexplicably, they don’t trust the arrows of Pinter’s dialogue to fly across a bit of space; instead, they swarm like flies in Henley’s face.
In this and several other ways, the performance is distractingly mannered. Yet in the last passages, it’s largely effective at conjuring the demons that bind and divide the men rattling about in this creepy, strangely contested lair.
by Harold Pinter. Directed by Tom Prewitt. Costumes, Steven T. Royal Jr.; sound design, David Crandall. About two hours. Through May 25 at Theatre on the Run, 3700 S. Four Mile Run Dr., Arlington. Visit wscavantbard.org.