Theater archives

Dramas of Sex and Excess from Harold Pinter and Wallace Shawn


Who would run around on Daniel Craig? Those muscular shoulders, those wintry eyes, that blond mane — is this a man to cuckold? Apparently.

Craig has elected to play Robert, the deceived husband of Betrayal, Harold Pinter’s 1978 play, revived by Mike Nichols at the Barrymore. His wife, Rachel Weisz (languorous), joins him as the adulterous Emma, with Rafe Spall (ardent) as Jerry, Robert’s best friend and Emma’s lover.

The play shows signs of wear. It asks us to imagine a literary agent and a publisher of upmarket novels as comfortably upper-middle-class. It also requires us to consider someone named Jerry a potential erotic object. But its reverse chronology (it begins in 1977 and slides nine years into the past) is more than a gimmick. And the questions it poses — Can we ever know each other? Or ourselves? — remain pertinent. This is about as sexy as epistemology gets.

At least, it could be. Nichols offers a brightly entertaining production that highlights the script’s conventionality rather than its disjunctions. Pinter’s menacing intellect rarely appears; even those famous pauses seem edited for pace. At times, the play verges on boulevard comedy and Nichols indulges a keen appetite for the obvious. A scene in Venice? Quick, show some gondoliers!

Still, the distractingly attractive cast (attired in Ann Roth’s echt ’70s outfits) infuse their performances with the pleasure that comes of having fled various film sets. If a drama of knowledge and power narrows to a wide-lapelled sexual roundelay, they wear those lapels well.

Pinter is a playwright of reticence. Even his garrulous characters limit their chatter, the better to abide his strictures and silences. Conversely, the people of Wallace Shawn’s plays can’t shut up. Depressed, weak, sick, dying, they prattle on. And we delight to hear them.

This logorrhea informs Grasses of a Thousand Colors, which parodies culinary theater and ecological theater even as it enacts them. As it runs nearly three and a half hours, it certainly has the time. The latter part of the Wallace Shawn–André Gregory Project, Grasses, which makes its American debut at the Public Theater, stars Shawn (perhaps Craig’s genetic opposite) as Ben, a doctor turned research chemist. Clad in a black silk robe and cravat, Shawn resembles a cadaverous playboy, which is essentially what Ben has become. In his efforts to increase and improve the world’s food supply, he has introduced an epidemic of deadly indigestion that will soon kill all animals and humans.

Unlike the characters of Betrayal, who view sex as thrill, as reprisal, as provocation, Ben is a creature of simpler appetites. He refers to his penis, whom he calls his best friend, as having a “wonderful face”: “no eyes, no nose, just a simple mouth.” Ben lives to eat and fuck—and not in that order. He blithely betrays his wife (Julie Hegarty) with a mistress (Jennifer Tilly, her breasts defying several laws of physics), a girl (Emily Cass McDonnell), and — shades of a Madame d’Aulnoy tale — a white cat. (At last, a play for furries.)

Shawn is a writer who wrings a troubling poetry from excess. He overstuffs us with stories of consumption and its consequences. Grasses is exhausting, frustrating, sickening, and still somehow a tour de force — or, at least, a tour de force-feeding.