Giving Us Pause

For a brief time and a lucky affluent elite, the New York theater shrugged off its summer doldrums to become what I can't resist calling a Pinter ponder-land. Better planned and containing better-executed productions than in previous summers, the theater component of this year's Lincoln Center Festival actually offered its audiences brain stimulus instead of imported chic. People in the lobbies were really discussing Pinter's plays, or comparing the productions to those they'd seen earlier. It had, in that sense, the feeling of a festival: Harold Pinter—as playwright, director, and actor—was a source of honor, pleasure, and contemplation, not a cheap excuse to jam a bunch of shows into a short time.

And Pinter proved worthy of the attention. Having been out of town, I caught only the two double bills that closed the festival, but the four pieces they contained showed the playwright's power, and his supple technique, as well as his remarkably broad tonal range. Political thriller, psychological drama, social satire, tragic ritual—the four works managed to touch among them most of the basic impulses of theater, moving as they did so from low comedy to a transcendent chill and back again. In the little rooms where people say inexplicable things to each other, their remarks shot through with even less explicable pauses, Pinter can evoke vast realms of human experience. For all the repetition and stasis that famously mark his writing, the effect of his work when taken in bulk is exhilaratingly multicolored.

This proved true even when the play didn't live up to Pinter's best, or when the production didn't live up to the play, both of which occurred in Katie Mitchell's staging of Ashes to Ashes and Mountain Language. I've always felt that there are several Harold Pinters: the genuinely substantive artist; the artist at play, perpetrator of the revue sketches and similar trifles; and—every fourth major play or so—the manufacturer, laboring to squeeze another large work out of a temporarily depleted stock. As at its 1999 New York premiere, Ashes to Ashes still sat there, a showily unsolvable puzzle, in all its smug factitiousness. Mitchell stripped it of ambiguity in performance, and her actors, Anastasia Hille and Neil Dudgeon, played it at top speed.

Keith Allen, Lia Williams, Lindsay Duncan, and Andy de la Tour in Celebration: table frettings
photo: Lincoln Center Festival 2001
Keith Allen, Lia Williams, Lindsay Duncan, and Andy de la Tour in Celebration: table frettings

Far from heightening the play's suspense, this haste merely made it seem more arbitrary. A woman and a man about whom we know virtually nothing—they may be lovers, husband and wife, or patient and shrink—tussle verbally over what may or may not be a set of traumatic memories, freighted with Holocaust-like images, from the woman's past. When Lindsay Duncan and David Strathairn played it at the Roundabout, she was able to suggest that the horrifying scenes—babies being ripped from their mothers' arms, people with suitcases marching into the sea to drown—belonged to her in some inexplicable way, lodged in her memory either by experience or by imaginative sympathy. Strathairn's mixture of bumbling and brutality, though not on her level, at least established the helpless absurdity of the man's efforts to locate the source of her nightmarish visions.

Hille's rattling straightforwardness, hardly changing tone from banal domesticity to recollected horror, merely suggested that the woman was delusional; Dudgeon's gruff, mechanical interrogation of her conveyed only the impatience of a frustrated husband waiting for the mental-home attendants to haul her away. Dubious as the play is—morally dubious in using its highly charged images as fodder for an intellectual parlor game—it deserves better, and carries more weight, than Mitchell's production conveyed.

Mountain Language (1996), minuscule in size but massively superior to its companion piece in substance, was equally mishandled, with the actors dimly lit, upstaged by a barrage of overamplified sound effects: low-flying helicopters, guard dogs barking, echoing footsteps, clanging metal doors. These obnoxious bits of Art Brut decoration, familiar from every prison movie, came close to burying what the tiny, acutely disturbing work is about—which is, as its title implies, language. At a remote prison camp, women wait in the snow to see their husbands and sons, badgered by the guards and menaced (one old woman has been bitten) by their unseen dogs. The women, we're told, speak a "mountain language" that's forbidden in the prison; the one who doesn't (Hille), and who defends the old woman, appears to be an outsider, an "intellectual." But when finally given permission to speak in their native tongue, the people are silent, and we can see why: The guards' language, like their own, can be a dangerous code. The sentences are simple, but every line poses a new problem of interpretation: Are the women being mocked, menaced, lied to, offered help, shown mercy, threatened, or commiserated with? All are possible at various points, but the slightest wrong guess may prove fatal. Yes, the noise of helicopters and clanging doors is scary too, but we've had that scare before; this scare is one only a Pinter could provide.

The Room, his first produced play, demonstrated that Pinter has known the best ways to scare us all along. How amazing that this perfect—and perfectly terrifying—hour of drama is so rarely produced. I missed its New York premiere in 1964—more fool I; the Rose, who won an Obie, was the superb Frances Sternhagen—and can't ever remember hearing of any other American production. It's hard to imagine one that could improve, though, on Pinter's own staging, with Lindsay Duncan—speaking of superb—as Rose, and diminutive Henry Woolf as the eerily prying landlord, Mr. Kidd, a role he created back in 1957, when he must have looked like the character's infant grandson.

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