A review of what is perhaps Harold Pinter's most demanding work, the two-act "No Man's Land." At ACT Theatre through Aug. 26, 2012.

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ACT Theatre has achieved something ambitious, and valuable.

The company’s successfully organized and mounted festival of works by English playwright Harold Pinter has spurred many Seattle theatergoers to investigate some of the darkly funny, absurdly revelatory plays (and films and stage sketches) of a modern master.

To drill down to the psychological complexity and profound questions about the human condition that Pinter often raises, a patron must play close attention. A willingness to abandon certainty in the theater and to embrace mystery and paradox, earthy British slang and allusive poetry, are also essential.

No script in the fest demands more from an audience than the final offering, a short run of the full-length “No Man’s Land.”

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Some familiar Pinterian motifs seen in other shows in the fest arise in this 1975 two-acter, one of the author’s most lauded works.

Two middle-age men, who’ve met up in a Hampstead Heath bar, are having a drink late at night in an upscale living room. Hirst (played by Frank Corrado) is a prosperous man of letters in an advanced state of intoxication.

Spooner (Randy Moore) is a loquacious, self-deprecating minor poet, invited home by Hirst for a nightcap — actually, many nightcaps.

Another two men eventually appear: Foster (Benjamin Harris) and Briggs (Peter Crook), cheeky, rather insidious lower-class servants of the booze-soaked Hirst, who cater to their literary lion boss and (when necessary) scrape him off the floor.

Over a night of talk and imbibing, and into a morning that brings fleeting sunlight and solace, the shabby Spooner gradually penetrates Hirst’s arrogant defenses. He’s a classic Pinter interloper, whose mere presence disrupts his host’s bleak household and pathetic decline.

Spooner also exposes possible ties with Hirst. Perhaps they were schoolmates, friends. Perhaps they betrayed each other with women. Clearly they are alter-egos: the artist as a famous, wealthy but emotionally hollow and self-destructing relic; and the artist as a bottom-feeding hustler of mediocre talents but piercing self-awareness.

There is no way to decode “No Man’s Land” from watching one performance, or even a dozen. It is among Pinter’s most enigmatic and densely loaded forays — and among his bleakest.

Written in a period of personal turmoil, when Pinter’s first marriage was crumbling, the play can be interpreted as a murky rite of passage, and a struggle between, to borrow critic-biographer Michael Billington’s words, “the opposite magnetic poles of paralysis and activity, resignation and resistance.”

The ACT production is staged crisply, with utmost care, by Penelope Cherns, a seasoned British director and professor at the distinguished London Academy of Dramatic Art. She draws articulate performances from all — particularly Moore, as the unflappable Spooner, and Corrado as his wary, disintegrating host.

Even so, one wishes for a few more flares of insight here, elucidating “beats” in the scripted score that help light a path through this purgatorial “no man’s land.”

But Pinter’s plays don’t come with road maps and signposts. They are to be navigated on your own, and can lead you into unexpected, meaningful and fascinating places of the psyche and soul.

Misha Berson: mberson@seattletimes.com

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