No Man’s Land, plays Thurs.-Sat., 8 pm; Sun., 2 pm; Weds., Nov. 4 & 11 and Dec. 1 at 8 pm; Sun. Nov 8 & Dec. 13 at 7 pm; through Dec. 19. Tickets $25-30. Odyssey Theatre Ensemble, 2055 S. Sepulveda, Los Angeles. Pay-What-You-Can perfs., Nov. 4, 5, 6, 8, 27& Dec. 13. 310.477.2055 or odysseytheatre.com.
Memory is a hauntingly elusive and quixotic siren. No playwright has better explored the emotional wreckage wrought by those entrapped in her seductive spell than Harold Pinter. That actors Alan Mandell and Lawrence Pressman should seek to curry her favor for the Odyssey Theatre Ensemble’s new staging of No Man’s Land directed by Michael Peretzian portends an outing of both personal and historic note.
First, both men knew Pinter since the 1960s and can recount vivid memories of their time together. Mandell first met the late English Nobel Prize-winner in 1960 when The Birthday Party made its American debut at the famed Actors Workshop in San Francisco, running for three years. The two would later collaborate on the 1970 world premiere of Landscape and Silence among others at Lincoln Center where Mandell had followed Herb Blau and Jules Irving to open the Vivian Beaumont and become general manager of its Repertory Theatre. Back in Los Angeles, the actor also directed several Pinter plays in the mid-1980s at LATC. His friendship with Pinter’s mentor Samuel Beckett would later lead them to often cross paths.
“He said with all of his work, when he finished writing it, he would send it to Beckett,” Mandell explains. “Beckett would make notes and send it back to him. Once he outlined a series of cuts in one play and Harold thought, ‘I can’t do that. We got into production and you know what, Sam was right. He was always right.’ Harold made the cuts.”
Pressman auditioned for a massively hung-over Pinter, who never removed his dark glasses, in a rented Fifth Avenue apartment the morning after the actor’s own opening night in Sabrina Fair, clinching a role in the 1967 world premiere London production of Robert Shaw’s The Man in the Glass Booth that famously starred Donald Pleasance and was directed by Pinter. Pressman would also make the show’s 1968 Broadway transfer plus appear in its 1975 film. He pub-crawled with the multi-hyphenate actor-director-playwright during London’s swinging Carnaby Street days, met his parents and became close with Pinter’s first wife, the late actress Vivien Merchant. Pressman saw Pinter numerous times over the years on stage and off. As a founding member of the Matrix Theatre Company, he also appeared in productions of Betrayal and The Birthday Party.
“I sort of got to know him as a friend because I lived in London for several months during the play,” he recalls. “It’s amazing to me now but I don’t think I had any idea what it meant to be in his company, quite. In those days, everyone came back after the show. You met Peter O’Toole or Albert Finney, Olivier or whoever decided to come. Noel Coward. I spent an evening in his company through Harold. There was that side of it. And then we used to drink together. The thing I best remember about it is he would direct as sparingly as he would write.”
Second, the two know only too well the ghostly legacy of Sir John Gielgud and Sir Ralph Richardson who originated the roles of Spooner and Hirst respectively for the 1975 world premiere production of No Man’s Land, directed by Sir Peter Hall at The Old Vic, which transferred to Broadway the following year and garnered a Tony Award for Richardson. Mandell saw them live at the Longacre. Their performances were indelibly captured on film and can be viewed in full on Google video, a fact he is surprised to learn during a later afternoon interview conducted with him and Pressman in the Odyssey’s green room during rehearsals. Mandell thought it was only a clip and admits this newly found knowledge could tempt him.
“I might want to watch it once we get started,” he confesses, himself recently singled out by Variety for his character’s “Gielgudian majesty” in Claudia Shear’s Restoration at La Jolla Playhouse this past summer. “In case there’s something they’re doing that I’m not.Â I think it will throw me if I do it now. I mean I’m happy to steal from the best. I believe in that!” He laughs.
Third, while the play purportedly deals with the vagaries of memory and the volatility of the past, remembering its intricately calibrated dialogue and lengthy monologues is a challenge for the more seasoned actor required for its lead characters. Gielgud was 71 and Richardson was 73. In the 1994 Roundabout Theatre revival, Christopher Plummer as Spooner was 65 while Jason Robards tackled Hirst at 72. Last fall, Sir Michael Gambon awed London critics at 68. Pressman is 70. Mandell is nearly 82. They amusedly acknowledge that between them there exists 150 years of experience.
“I just turned 70 in July, so I’m sort of the standard,” Pressman admits, turning to Mandell.Â “And you’re definitely above standard. The gold standard!” Mandell defers the praise, adding, “So if I bauble a few lines, you can say, well he’s a bit older.”
“I saw Gielgud’s last appearance on the West End in a not terribly good play,” continues Pressman. “He played the guy who was head of the Ashmolean Museum. It was called The Best of Friends with Rosemary Harris and that Irish actor who died too young, Ray McAnally. Gielgud didn’t have many of the lines and it didn’t matter. There’s a point certain actors get to where they are like a Georgia O’Keefe bleached bone. They are just there.”
“Tell that to the audience for me when they come,” says Mandell.
“I think they’ll know it anyway,” smiles Pressman. “You know what they did in London? As you said they were in their 70s. They did it at The National Theatre with Peter Hall. They had five weeks of rehearsal, which is just heaven, and I think they rehearsed about four or five hours a day. After two weeks of talking about it, getting up and playing around, he sent them home to let them learn their lines and then come back. I’ve actually worked with a director who did that.”
“It’s such a wise thing,” Mandell adds.
For their director Michael Peretzian, the specter of Gielgud and Richardson has also loomed large in his memory alongside the piece’s infamous indecipherability.
“You just don’t do this play unless you have actors with the chops to do it,” states the former William Morris and CAA agent via phone who directed last season’s critically acclaimed production of Alex Dinelaris’ Red Dog Howls starring Kathleen Chalfant. “This is the hardest thing I’ve ever done. It’s really a minefield of a play on many levels. I remember being absolutely stunned by the Broadway production, especially Richardson. When he fell down I thought, oh my god, is he all right? They’re going to bring the curtain down.Â Of course he was acting but I couldn’t tell. I had a lot of questions then. What the hell was this play? It just haunted me and has ever since.”
Peretzian would later represent British director David Leveaux who directed Pinter playing Hirst in 1992 at London’s Almeida Theatre. “That was again a kind of revelation.Â I had questions but they were different questions. They were more mature questions. The impact when I was older hit me in a completely different way. A lot of that particular version has stuck with me.”
Pinter and His Pauses
Mandell and Pressman banter backstage at the Odyssey with the rhythm of two gentleman raconteurs, each one taking overlapping turns to offer up prized Pinter morsels — like intercepting the playwright en route to a London matinee of Fiddler on the Roof with his parents or getting kudos for suggesting an additional performance of Silence to bookend an evening anchored by Landscape at Lincoln Center — while gently correcting the other’s minor lapses in specific show names or faces. The two have been friends for years and first played these roles in a reading initiated by Mandell that was directed by Bart DeLorenzo at Antaeus Company, where both are company members and Pressman is among its founders.
Pressman is a very familiar face to television, film and theatre audiences. He made his Broadway debut in Woody Allen’s Play It Again, Sam and appeared Off Broadway with Debra Monk in Paul Weitz’s Show People. Among his most recent LA stage appearances are Tanya Barfield’s Of Equal Measure and the world premiere of Jon Robin Baitz’s The Paris Letter at the Kirk Douglas, Antaeus’ Dinner at 8:30, King Lear directed by Patsy Rodenburg and The Birthday Party. He has more than 150 television and film credits including an emotionally brave performance as a poet haunted by childhood Holocaust memories in the critically acclaimed 2009 indie film Tickling Leo co-starring Eli Wallach and Victoria Clark.
Mandell can also be currently seen on screen in Joel and Ethan Coen’s A Serious Man and is an indie film favorite for his roles in John Cameron Mitchell’s Short Bus and Hedwig and the Angry Inch. His 74 year acting career includes the famous 1984 European tour of Waiting for Godot and Endgame directed by Samuel Beckett, Impossible Marriage on Broadway, The Beard of Avon and Waiting for Godot Off Broadway, the national tour of Twelve Angry Men and The Cherry Orchard at the Taper. He won the Ovation and Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle Awards for his 2007 portrayal of cantankerous octogenarian Francis Biddle in Trying at the Colony Theatre.
“I have a funny story about Trying,” interjects Pressman. “They’re going to do it up in Ventura at the Rubicon. They called me to talk about it. I said, so Alan is busy and they said yes. I mean that’s a fair question. And I said I’m busy because I’m acting with Alan!” He laughs.
Mandell is the reason Pressman is also involved in this current mounting of No Man’s Land. Last spring, the actor was so taken with Peretzian’s staging of Red Dog Howls that he emailed him to have lunch. When Peretzian unexpectedly suggested No Man’s Land, a new project was born. Mandell pushed for the close-to-home proximity of the Odyssey and a reading was held for Peretzian’s fellow UCLA theatre arts alumni Ron Sossi who gave it a thumbs up. Peretzian obtained the rarely given Equity Waiver rights to the play because of his longtime friendship with Pinter’s agent Judy Daish. Mandell suggested Pressman as a replacement for Hirst.
“I had forgotten that Larry and I had worked together,” admits Peretzian, who directed Pressman years ago in a reading at the Mark Taper Forum’s literary café, the Itchy Foot. “So I thought that’s a good idea. I also thought, if they have a friendship, that rapport would be terrific for the play. And it’s been absolutely great.”
The enthusiasm also extends to the two other actors in the cast, fellow Antaeus member John Sloan as Foster and Jamie Donovan as Briggs. Pressman points out that “all the characters are named after real cricketeers Harold was crazy about. Actually the only match I attended in my life, Harold took me to. And I was staggered with boredom. It’s like watching wallpaper dry. It’s worse than baseball which I find slower than god.”
“But he was passionate about cricket,” Mandell interjects.
“He was passionate about sports in general,” continues Pressman. “He liked to play squash. Squash is mentioned in the play. He was an avid tennis player at the end with Lady Antonia. So he was a sports guy even if he wasn’t a particularly gifted athlete.”
“No, but he was really hot for cricket,” stresses Mandell. “So was Beckett. Loved it.”
Pinter also loved deflecting people’s attempts at analyzing the meaning behind his work. In a 1970 speech, he said, “I can sum up none of my plays. I can describe none of them except to say: That is what happened. That is what they said. That is what they did.” Once after consuming several pints in a London pub, Pressman tried to extract a more detailed answer from the drunken playwright.
“I had not acted in one of his plays at that point,” he recalls. “I said tell me what they’re like. How do you do them? He said, ‘Well it’s like being in a hotel room and there’s a couple next door. You bore a hole in the wall. Whatever comes in front of the hole is the play.’ ”
“In this play, more than any other, there seems to be a real influence of Samuel Beckett,” offers Peretzian. “It seems to be more existential. This idea of no man’s land. That somewhere between the moment of birth and approaching death, we’re in this world that is kind of hung out in space trying to figure it out. And I think that’s something a little bit more than any other political or social comment Pinter made in the other plays. All that terror and domination is certainly there but there’s something a little more cosmic. I don’t know whether we’ll be successful in achieving that but it’s something I’m striving for.”
All are dedicated to maintaining the integrity of Pinter’s infamous “pauses and silences,” long considered key stage directions in his plays but what he later came to regard as open invitations for overacting. Pinter bitterly complained to Mandell one day about exactly such abuse.
“I had lunch with him at a friend’s house,” he recalls. “There was a production of The Caretaker being done in New York and he said, ‘It was painful, Alan. It was simply awful!’ I said what was wrong? He said, ‘Oh my god. The pauses! The pauses! Endless! You’ve worked with Sam; you know what a pause is?’ I said, yes, like a musical beat. He said, “That’s it! I wish I’d never heard the fucking word!’ ” He and Pressman both laugh.
“We both had the experience of seeing Harold in Old Times,” shares Pressman. “We both went back. I said to him, you didn’t take one pause or one silence that I could hear. He said, ‘Well you can’t bore them to death.’ ”
Director David Leveaux once took Pinter to task for taking a new pause during previews for his 1992 No Man’s Land production, recalls Peretzian. “David had gone back to the dressing room where all the actors were and said Harold, you’re putting a pause on this particular line and it changes the meaning entirely. And Pinter said what are you talking about? Harold, you’re putting a pause on this line and there is no pause. And Harold said, let me see the script! And they went through the script and he saw there was no pause there. Harold Pinter was putting in a pause where none was written. So he turned to the entire company and said well, we have heard from our director and we shall eliminate that pause! But you have to know what you’re doing to tell Harold Pinter, what are you doing?” He laughs.
“But you know he never stopped,” emphasizes Pressman. “That’s the interesting thing. He always kept them in to the very end. I think it was because of what Alan said about the pauses being like musical beats. Without them something is missing. When you’re learning the lines, you’re not learning the pauses but somewhere in the middle you begin to say, oh there’s a pause here. There must be a pause here. Nine times out of ten if you feel that, you’re right. And if you’ve taken a pause in the wrong place, you also know it.”
“In learning it and working on his work, it’s about the rhythm,” adds Mandell. “It’s finding the rhythm of the piece. Particularly this one because it’s very musical.”
“He’s right,” agrees Peretzian. “There is a rhythm there and it is like a piece of music. Almost like rests in a score. Sometimes the pause is just a beat. Sometimes it is as much a transition as you will find in a play by Chekhov. Certainly with Alan and Larry, it is by the letter in terms of what Harold wrote because they both knew him. And they can just imagine him turning over in his grave, if they didn’t take a pause or do silence when he wrote silence. And if he does dot dot dot, then you damn well better do dot dot dot!”
The Last Laugh
In a 2006 interview with Charlie Rose, Pinter said his work makes him laugh. “I believe in two things. One is, get a laugh if it’s a natural laugh. And the other is, stop it dead. By shutting the audience up. I’ve always found myself in a sort of contest between the audience and I’ve enjoyed that contest. There’s only one winner. It has to be me.”
Pressman nods and smiles at hearing those words, remembering a conversation the two had during rehearsals in London. “I was very shy of Harold at first. He had a great presence. I told him that I loved The Homecoming. And he said, ‘Well good.’ And I said, ‘I laughed and a woman shut me up.’ He replied, ‘Then I hope you turned around and told her to go fuck herself!’ And I laughed because he thought his plays were funny.”
Pressman admits that people like him and Mandell are among the final members of a generation who will have personally known or worked with the seminal 20th century playwrights like Pinter. “Because we have had these experiences, it does occur to me sometimes we are the last of it. When we don’t do this anymore, there will die some sense of what Harold might have intended firsthand. The same thing is happening to Noel Coward now. The people who did those plays or who even saw those plays have died off. They’re not here anymore. A whole new generation will discover Coward and they will do with him as they wont. I think Harold kept the pauses and silences in to keep a little bit of control from beyond the grave.”
Mandell concurs. “I’ve worked with Arthur Miller. Tennessee Williams. Beckett. John Lahr, who I think is a great writer. Pinter. That’s what we bring to it. Our life experience and our work with some of the finest of writers.”
Harold Pinter died last year from cancer on Christmas Eve in London, two days after Beckett had died 19 years earlier. His secretary, a longtime friend, called Pressman on Christmas Day.
“I hadn’t realized how deeply I would take that. I hadn’t seen him in years. I’d written him a note after the Nobel Prize but didn’t receive an answer. Louise told me he answered almost no one because he was so sick. He just didn’t want to waste the energy in correspondence. I have several letters otherwise. It took me back and aback. I hadn’t expected Harold to die, I guess. We don’t, you know. So more than anything, I think this is the right time and the right way to say goodbye.”
*** Production photos by Enci
Article by Deborah Behrens