There are a lot of spaces in the stage work of Harold Pinter — not just spaces between words, with all its characteristic pauses and gravid silences, but also between the words and their meaning. His plays, which include modern classics like The Birthday Party, The Caretaker, and The Homecoming, can turn pleasantry into menace and small talk into anything but, all implications and sublimated violence. But Julian Sands’ one-man appreciation of the Nobel Prize-winning literary icon, A Celebration of Harold Pinter, now playing at Off Broadway’s Irish Repertory Theatre through Nov. 4, is much more an act of rapprochement.
”I know the place/It is true./Everything we do/Corrects the space/Between death and me/And you.” Sands quotes this poem multiple times and it provides an appropriate backbone for the show. By focusing on Pinter’s poetry and his own personal anecdotes about encounters with the man (as well as some from the memoir Must You Go by Pinter’s wife, Antonia Fraser, the actor tries to make the playwright more accessible, communing with Pinter’s spirit and even channeling it a few times with a raspy gruffness. With what appears to be minimal direction from fellow actor John Malkovich, Sands is engaging and open. It’s great to hear him orate Pinter’s work in his plummy accent, coaxing out the sly, dark humor that’s just below the surface, but the material feels slight and oblique. There’s a disconnect in the show’s conspicuous sidestepping of the late playwright’s most famous work — instead, it touches on Pinter’s relationship with theater primarily through his early experiences as an actor and not as one of the greatest dramatists of the 20th century.
What the show lacks in comprehensiveness, Sands makes up for in affection and a fervent belief in his subject’s poetic brilliance. And while his case for the latter has a surfeit of evidence but a lack of curation, one section in particular covering Pinter’s final, waning years of sickness movingly demonstrates the dying man’s growing interest in mortality, the memento mori that drape over his work like funeral bunting. In those moments, Sands succeeds in making a distant literary beacon seem near and human. B
(Tickets: Irishrep.org or 212-727-2737)