The three characters in Harold Pinter’s 1960 play, The Caretaker (BAM Harvey Theater), all struggle, tempted alternately toward generosity and toward cruelty. I sometimes think Pinter himself faced the same struggle while writing the play. His earlier works had made him the talk of London; this was his first West End success. The alternating temptation to comfort the paying audience with graspable explanations and to pursue his own harsher, more gnomic goals must have waged fierce battle in his mind. Though invariably effective, the resulting play always seems indecisively “placed,” never quite completing the picture it strives to paint.
Aston (Alan Cox), an odd, taciturn man, brings a scruffy, querulous old man who calls himself Davies (Jonathan Pryce) home to his appropriately odd basement flat, crammed full of random furnishings. The oldster duly proves to be quite an eccentric item himself, an ongoing litany of self-justifications, excuses, complaints, and evasions. Left alone, he immediately rifles through Aston’s accumulated junk, presumably looking for money or salable goods, till he’s interrupted by Mick (Alex Hassell), a menacing, leather-jacketed tough who’s ultimately revealed to be Aston’s brother and the flat’s landlord.
Other revelations follow as Davies, over several weeks, acclimatizes himself to the peculiarities of life with Aston and the brothers acclimatize themselves to his. At least, they try to—until the brothers prove too peculiar a team for Davies to fathom, and he too argumentative, too manipulative, too vociferously self-involved for them to tolerate his presence. “You make too much noise,” Aston tells him, an assertion that’s as true spiritually as it is vocally: Davies creates a kind of static that interferes with the siblings’ silent communication. At the end, he’s on his way out. At least, so we think. Though with Pinter, you never really know.
Davies is a superbly showy role, and Christopher Morahan’s production, brought over from the Theatre Royal, Bath, exists mainly to show off Pryce’s flamboyant skills. Ironically, it’s precisely his brilliance that vitiates the play’s effect. Pryce works through a panoply of funny voices and quick-change expressions, but never once gives you the feeling there’s a single, desperately needy human being trapped under them. And the pain underlying Davies’s desperate need to be there is the play’s fulcrum, without which it has no leverage. Morahan saps the script’s strength further by trying to dodge conventional choices, softening Mick’s menace and diminishing Aston’s hints of disturbance. Pinter comes through, but wanly.