When Pinter first appeared on the scene in 1960, he was hailed as an English hybrid of Samuel Beckett and Eugene Ionesco. For twenty years, Pinter's cryptic plays -- The Caretaker, The Birthday Party, Old Times, Betrayal -- replete with pauses galore (not to mention silences, ellipses and even the occasional "brief pause"), fascinated audiences. What did these plays mean? In interviews, Pinter was as remote as his characters. The more enigmatic he remained, the higher his critical standing rose.
But audiences will tolerate confusion for only so long. By the early 1980s, the Pinter period had peaked. Today he seems to be more active as a director, actor and screenwriter than as a playwright. So, in effect, with its staging of Pinter's 1965 success The Homecoming, City Players of St. Louis is offering a stroll down memory lane. This moody, mesmerizing production is a nostalgic reminder of what was simultaneously so entertaining and aggravating about Pinter in his prime.
The plot: In North London, Max (Kevin Beyer) is a poor man's Lear who presides over his dry-rot realm with an iron fist and an oak cane. Joey (Josh Rowan), the youngest of his sons, is a would-be boxer who, when the light is right, resembles Charles Laughton as Quasimodo. In one of the play's more telling lines, Max berates his son's prowess as a pugilist: "You don't know how to defend yourself and you don't know how to attack." By evening's end, everyone will have a little more experience in defense and attack. Lenny (Jason Cannon) is Joey's loutish, menacing older brother. Max has a brother, too. Sam (Gary Wayne Barker), a prissy chauffeur, fills out this baleful quartet.
Enter Teddy (Matt Kahler), the eldest of the three sons, who six years earlier abandoned this snakepit, married and moved to America. Education has made Teddy soft; he is the aptly named teddy bear of the family. Now he returns so that everyone can meet Ruth (Carrie Hegdahl), his ever-loving wife. Max promptly brands his daughter-in-law "a stinking pox-ridden slut." In turn, the dutiful Ruth does her best to live up to her father-in-law's expectations.
What significance, if any, are we to find in all this voyeurism? Is there some hidden symbolism in the fact that these characters use repetition the way thugs use baseball bats? Who knows? But even if there's less here than meets the eye, there's no denying that the play -- and the production -- provides riveting theater.
Much credit is due to director William Whitaker, whose staging is spare, handsome and thoughtful. Clearly Whitaker was not intimidated by the play. He wrings out every ounce of smoldering humor (of which there is much) the same way someone might wring out a wet washrag. Nor does he take those celebrated Pinter pauses too seriously.
Under Whitaker's watchful eye, all the acting is good, and some of it is true. Barker's chauffeur might have come straight from a Royal Shakespeare Company production of Pinter. Hegdahl's brooding wife also elicits the Pinter style. Every line out of her mouth is a jolt. As his wife turns whore, Kahler's husband is maddeningly casual. But to single out three actors is to do a disservice to a cast which functions best as an ensemble. The energy that emanates from all six keeps the production so charged, City Players is lucky the light board doesn't experience a power surge. Only time will tell whether Pinter is a master playwright or an asterisk. But one thing is for sure: To read his plays in script form is a limiting experience; if judgment is to be rendered, they demand to be seen. This production is worth the seeing.