The Pinter Project
nytheatre.com review by Jo Ann Rosen
February 4, 2005
The Homecoming, Harold Pinter’s play about an unexpected family reunion, reflects the jealousies, insecurities, and sibling rivalries that exist in every family, and he shows how patterns repeat themselves from generation to generation. There is no shortage of family scars in this play, but in true Pinter fashion, the wounds run deep enough to take one’s breath away.
Simply told, a man comes back unannounced to his childhood home in North London after a six-year absence to introduce his wife to his family. The family, comprising his father Max, two adult brothers, Lenny and Joey, and an uncle, Sam, receive the couple unconventionally, with the woman’s presence changing the dynamics and the hierarchy.
At the beginning, we meet the male enclave. Max is the seedy patriarch, who sets the bar high when it comes to belligerence. He occupies the only comfortable chair in the house as he spews nastiness to family members. Even his dead wife is reviled. Howard Parke embraces this role in all its complexity. He skewers his face and nervously works his lips to show that vituperative words are never far from his lips. He wears the weariness of old age under his vest of combativeness, with rare moments of tender memories surfacing. One is of his wife, whom he left for periods of time under the care of a friend and his brother, Sam.
Sam, played by Fred Tumas, is a broken bachelor, defeated by his brother and by life in general. A chauffeur by profession, he used to drive Max’s wife around, those being among the most delightful moments of his life. Tumas brings sad resignation to this role, his posture weary enough to make one cry. With the slow, deliberate closing of his eyes, Tumas shows his character cannot take much more.
Lenny, the middle son, is up for a fight. He neither fears nor acknowledges his father, except when he chooses to challenge him. Jason Weiss delivers a cocky, edgy character, who makes an undemanding living by renting rooms to prostitutes. Joey, the youngest, a quiet and reclusive sort, works diligently at his boxing only to hear that both his offense and defense are wanting. Eric Percival lends the necessary insecurity to a man who has no skills, no support, and nowhere to go.
It is this house and this psychological drama that Teddy and Ruth walk into. He, a doctor of philosophy at an American university, is the source of considerable pride and jealousy. His beautiful wife, once a body model and now mother of their three sons, appears content. But then they speak. They are cold, awkward, and uncommunicative. It is as if Teddy has learned that successful people do not openly bicker, and in this way he stands apart from his family; yet like his family, he does not communicate. It is another generation without love, warmth, or compromise. Todd Reichart and Patty Parker play the attractive couple. Reichart brings fresh-faced vacuity to emotionally packed moments, forcing the audience’s jaws to drop as they witness the bizarre unfolding of events. Parker, as the lone female, maintains her edge with robotic detachment, ultimately negotiating her spot as the head of the family and earning her seat in the comfortable chair—with all eager for her favors.
The ties in this family are strong, but it is a place without support, compassion, or any semblance of communication. The characters are starved for affection, fighting for recognition or acknowledgment, with no one to give it. Actions that make a house a home are present, but they occur at the wrong time with the wrong people. There are cuddles and kisses, but not between husband and wife. Max cooks for his family, but withholds food when they are most hungry. There are no simple hellos or goodbyes, no absent touches to connote warmth. Instead, Ruth responds inappropriately to a kiss from Lenny and then one from Joey; they find themselves rolling on the floor. Teddy stands with their packed bags, observing dispassionately. He leaves for home and his three sons, allowing a family cycle to repeat itself for the second, possibly the third time, and setting the stage for a repeat performance in the home in America.
Terry Schreiber, artistic director of T. Schreiber Studio, directs with a keen eye for detail and an excellent ear for pregnant pauses. Scenic design, costumes, and lighting work beautifully. Credit Hal Tine, David Kaley, and Andrea Boccanfuso, respectively.
The Birthday Party
The title of Harold Pinter’s play, The Birthday Party, may appear to be simple and straightforward, but like everything else in this disturbing drama written in the 1950’s, it is at once misleading and accurate. A birthday party connotes eager anticipation, happiness, and a time when the guest of honor is the center of pleasant, if not joyous, attention. In this case, none of this is true—except the anticipation.
The story begins with a working class couple, Meg and Petey, who run a modest boarding house. Their one guest is an angry young man named Stanley who has lived there for about a year. The dramatic action, occurring over two days, heats up when two new boarders, Goldberg and McCann, arrive. When Meg tells them it is Stanley’s birthday, they encourage her to celebrate with a party in his honor, despite Stanley’s protests. The party ensues, with drink, dance, and games.
The characters border on stereotypes, yet there is something about them that is a little off. Are they likeable? No! Befriendable for more than the 2- hours? No! All this uneasiness, yet it is difficult not to be drawn in by the dynamics of Meg, an Edith Bunker type with nary a flicker of a bulb upstairs, serving cornflakes to her passive husband Petey and Stanley. Sexual undercurrents pervade from the start: between Stanley and Meg, at the party between Goldberg and Meg’s friend Lulu, and then between Stanley and Lulu. Pinter dispenses with obvious character motivation and background, partly, I think, because we are all passing through—not expected to know everything about the characters just as there are hidden motivations in real life. At the end of the party, the theatre turns pitch black, and the audience is finally in sync with the play—physically and literally in the dark. An act of violence has occurred—or has it?
The questions keep coming. Who are Goldberg and McCann, and what is their relationship to Stanley? What is Stanley running from? So much that we are left with is conjecture, but that’s how it usually is with people we have only gotten to know casually. Interestingly enough, this is one of the plays strengths.
Pinter's simple dialog adds to the uneasiness. Characters sound like they are having real conversations. Listen closer and they are often talking to themselves, the most important messages not uttered at all. In some instances, characters charge the air with banal interchanges that seem to carry layers of subtext.
Despite all the vagaries, the play feels cohesive. Credit the superb cast and Terry Schreiber, artistic director of T. Schreiber Studio and the director of this production. Under Schreiber’s direction, the play moves like a toboggan destined for a crash. It tips off with a sense of exhilaration, picks up speed, and courses to the denouement, leaving the audience—like the characters—speechless.
The cast is wonderful. Sarah-Ann Rodgers scuffs around the kitchen in a housedress and curlers exhibiting Meg’s false exuberance for the daily routine. Rodgers brings a poignant undercurrent of sadness to her role, and her character’s need for a moment of recognition is palpable and finally realized at the birthday party. Michael Salconi brings resignation to new heights in Petey with his slow methodical walk. Numb and uncommunicative, he buries himself in the news. Just as he is unable to respond to Meg, he is unable—maybe unwilling—to alter his routine to join the birthday festivities. Finally, when Petey feels compelled to act, Salconi makes it entirely credible that he is incapable of doing so.
Stephen Heskett plays Stanley with enough adolescent attitude to make us question why the couple allows him to stay. Only at the end does his behavior seem reasonable.
Laurence Cantor imbues Goldberg with a subtle oiliness; despite his professional demeanor and friendly banter, he comes alive as an untrustworthy menace. Aaron Letrick lends precision to McCann, Goldberg’s cohort, as he sits at the kitchen table systemically ripping the newspaper into strips—a counterpoint to Petey, who can rarely be torn away from his daily. Letrick is an enormous presence on the physically small stage, and he contributes handsomely to the sense of imminent danger.
There is, in all this madness, a stabilizer. That is Lulu, Meg’s friend. Cristina Doikos delivers a pert antidote to the melancholy that hangs in the air, and is reliably seductive and naeve at the same time.
The well-conceived set, designed by Hal Tine, gives the illusion of action beyond the visible table and few chairs. In a small space, he has created a home that has seen better days. The faded, period wallpaper and worn furniture are among the accurate details. Costume designer David Kaley dresses the characters in what seem like every day clothes, but a closer evaluation shows the costumes fit both the Pinter script and the unusual personalities who don them. Andrea Boccanfuso does a fine job with lighting, and Jason Weiss serves admirably as fight director.
The performance runs two hours and twenty minutes, but the questions raised throughout the evening will stick a lot longer. Schreiber, who received special permission directly from Harold Pinter to produce The Pinter Project, predicts in the program that you will not forget this evening. He is not kidding. I left the theater challenged by the thought-provoking play and exhilarated by this fine production.