Like the masterpieces, the makeweights sustain the same uninflected deadpan, present the same unfeeling relationships that inexplicably alter as you watch, and break for laughs with the same lurches into dimwit chatter or absurd English place names. The difference is a purely sensual, or maybe sixth-sensual, matter: During the masterpieces you feel that something genuine is occurring; the filler unhappily offers no such grip. You might, after extensive study of the printed text, be able to map its intended connections, but the effort would be a purely academic one; nothing in the play would make you care about it.
Ashes to Ashes ought to contain, at least, the pleasure of suspense within its puzzle. In a country house, a woman is telling a man whom we presume to be her husband about her relationship with another man, whom the 'husband' subsequently refers to as her "lover." By her description, he has been a key player in some political atrocity, the images of which are carefully pitched to suggest but not specify the Holocaust.
T. Scott Cunningham and Betty Buckley in The Eros Trilogy: mail-oriented theater
The Eros Trilogy By Nicky Silver Vineyard Theatre 108 East 15th Street 353-3874
Ashes to Ashes By Harold Pinter Gramercy Theatre 127 East 23rd Street 777-4900
Challenged by her 'husband,' the woman concedes that she has no "authority" to discuss such things, because she and her friends "have never suffered." We shortly find, however, that this notion is only relative. The lover whom she describes as menacing her so tenderly has also appeared in her story "tear[ing] all the babies from the arms of their screaming mothers." Naturally, at the end, we see her become one of the mothers whose baby has been so torn; her unsuffering innocence may be only a state of psychotic denial. Her 'husband' 's questioning often suggests a therapist rather than a spouse.
Or it would, if her psychotic lapses weren't echoed by his falls into a kind of niggling, pedantic buffoonery like a speech equating faith in God with the attendance at a soccer match that no one would tolerate in a therapist. As she retreats into victimhood, he attempts to promote himself into the role of her menacing lover; as with almost every other tactic he tries, she declines to respond.
No doubt it's all very ingenious. But why would anybody want to see it? Pinter's been through the messed-up dynamics of married couples and their visions of an alternative existence a few million times before. Ashes to Ashes, with its smarmily predictable reality jumps and verbal glitches, doesn't even have the somber glints of word music that redeemed earlier versions. As for Pinter's desire to pin mass slaughter as a trinket on this one-act divertissement about marital dynamics, to me it stinks both ethically and aesthetically. The irony is that one or two of his greatest short works deal with the torture of political prisoners in a form that's fully achieved and unquestionably honorable. Let's charitably pass over Ashes to Ashes as a forgivable flip, and wait for the next Pinter masterpiece. The production offers a lone justification in the form of Lindsay Duncan, an actress who can make even this shabby script sound magical. She has an unfair advantage over her costar, David Strathairn, since the role's dual-voltage craziness allows for anything she chooses, while he has to seem sane.