Night of the Living Dread


A British critic once described the experience of an early Pinter play as a Hitchcock film with the final reel missing. Familiarity has bred less carping, though the Pinter mystery remains. In his fawning but nonetheless informative 1996 biography, Michael Billington contends that to understand Pinter the playwright you have to first acknowledge Pinter the actor. Working as a rep player alongside old-school British theater legends like Donald Wolfit, Pinter discovered how an electric storm of fear can be generated by a “slow turn of the cloak.” Obsessed from the start by the banality of evil, he learned onstage the menace of small things. “If you take the glass,” Ruth says to her brother-in-law in The Homecoming, “I’ll take you”—a line that perfectly captures Pinter’s signature genius for investing the most quotidian gestures with covert sexuality and terror.

No question that the Gate Theatre’s hyped production of The Homecoming was the hot ticket for the first half of Lincoln Center’s two-week Harold Pinter Festival. Ian Holm made for a rather gnomish Max, more sinister than bullying with his cane flailing about like a poisoned stick. Though the violence of this diminutive patriarch may not always have been convincing, the private orgasmic expressions smearing across his face could scare the breath from a baby. While assembling a distinctive male cast, director Robin Lefevre miscalculated badly in his direction of Lia Williams, whose husky affectations as Ruth spoiled the truthfulness of the savage, oedipally charged reunion. With her overly dramatic head wrap and slim powder blue dress accentuating her leggy body, Williams seemed less like an actual woman than the Female Sexual Mystery incarnate. As a result, the central enigma of The Homecoming seemed imposed, not earned.

More satisfying than the confirmed Pinter classic was the double bill featuring A Kind of Alaska, with Penelope Wilton, and One for the Road, which starred Pinter himself in his New York acting debut. A concentrated mix of adolescent effervescence and adult silence, Wilton movingly captured her middle-aged character Deborah’s emergence from a coma that struck at age 16. Inspired by a case in Oliver Sacks’s Awakenings, Pinter transforms the story of a medical anomaly into a poem about memory’s desperate competition with life, and the way we’re forced to put a civilized face on the absurdity of our loss-filled situation. Twenty-nine years stolen from her, her mother dead, her father blind, Deborah says at the end of her flood of teenage recollections exactly what is expected from a bright, well-brought-up British woman: “I think I have the matter in proportion.”

Pinter’s brooding, masculine presence infuses the action of One for the Road with perverse dread. Portraying a torturer in a posh, whiskey-filled office, he enacts a cat-and-mouse game with a husband, wife, and young son, who are brought to him individually after rounds of physical punishment. Written in reaction to human rights violations in Turkey, the story focuses on the psycho-mechanics of state-supported sadism, both in its emotional disassociation and erotic insanity. More explicit in its political concern than, say, The Caretaker or Old Times, the piece harks back to the playwright’s obsession with humanity’s ongoing contest for power and domination, which remains largely subterranean even in this extreme context. Pinter just can’t resist non sequitur chills. “Do you think I’m mad?” the chatty Nicolas asks, apropos of nothing. “My mother did.” Whether belting down shots in between sexual innuendos or violently plucking a string from his jacket, Pinter’s performance finds countless microscopic ways of jacking up the suspense, and needless to say, he knows a thing or two about detonating a pause. Watching him act is like examining an X ray of his playwriting.

Douglas Carter Beane’s new comedy, Music From a Sparkling Planet, is essentially a play for couch potatoes who don’t mind trekking to the theater for their languid enjoyment. Once the lights go down on this Drama Dept. production, all that’s missing are the blankets and the remote control.

Wags (Josh Hamilton), Miller (T. Scott Cunningham), and Hoagie (Ross Gibby) are three guys in their thirties who’d rather chug beer and volley TV trivia than deal with the mess of their personal lives. The seemingly endless permutations of their game (“name the most stoned cartoon character”) eventually leads them on a chase to find Tamara Tomorrow (J. Smith-Cameron), the blond and bouncy host of an old local Philadelphia children’s show. In good sitcom tradition, the infatuated trio tracks Tamara down in Wildwood, New Jersey, where she’s now the hard-boiled reservations clerk at a hotel decorated in a 1960s “futuristic” style that couldn’t resemble the actual future less.

No need to draw out the obvious connections. Suffice it to say that Beane’s parable about the unreality of childhood dreams (and our tenacious longing for them as adults) has just enough funny bits and mournful sighs to suppress the desire for a clicker. Mark Brokaw’s production takes a lighthearted, almost cartoonish approach to the material, with Smith-Cameron providing the requisite pathos of the sentimental ending. All told, it’s a harmless trifle of a play, bound for the same oblivion as unsyndicated TV shows.

Archive Highlights