The Thing in the Lake
"Not understanding Pinter is a very great pleasure. To feel the elusiveness of his meaning is, in fact, to come close to its essence." -- Alistair Macaulay
Five times in this decade, you could find a revival of one of these Pinter plays -- Betrayal or The Homecoming -- onstage in London or New York. And quite without premeditation, both have popped up in Austin at the same time, produced by The Public Domain and the fledgling Pause Productions, respectively. Why Pinter? And why now? There's a flood of possible answers, not the least of which are that the plays are trophies of theatre's fabled golden age as well as vehicles to strut those acting chops. Like Arthur Miller, whose Death of a Salesman is about to enjoy a generous revival on Broadway, Pinter is a master playwright whose latest works have been deemed less than earth-shattering, leading most producers to stage and restage his universally acclaimed early works. And the challenging, often flashy roles in those works are like actors' bait, drawing performers and frequently inspiring them to inspired work -- as can be seen in both current Austin revivals, in the tremendous, albeit utterly contrasting, star turns: brittle David Jones in Betrayal and scenery-chewing Ev Lunning Jr. in The Homecoming. It may also be that Pinter's comedy of menace and bleak assessment of mankind fit as snugly in the anxious pre-millennial Nineties as they ever did in England's acrimonious, identity crisis-ridden Sixties and Seventies. But to catch the enduring success of the playwright, the reason people return to these specific plays again and again, it may be most illuminating to think about that quote from Macaulay: "Not understanding Pinteris a very great pleasure." Or, to elaborate, indulge me in a scenario:
You're knee-deep in a murky lake past midnight. Something slithers past your feet, something cold and slippery. Your mind races with images, fears. Maybe a leaf. Maybe not. But the thought of what it could be is so awful. And so awfully exciting. It bats against your ankles; you hear a burbling noise. Just crickets? Say you jump out of that lake, say you never find out what that mossy something was. You are left wondering. Are you a fool to be so paranoid? Or is paranoia your saving grace?
In Pinterland, nothing is ever for sure. All meaning, all symbols, all history, all motivation, is underwater; it caresses your toes, splashes around, sometimes nips at your ankles. But the truth -- if it was there to begin with -- stays submerged in that inky lake. Other playwrights may toy with you similarly -- raising questions, taunting you -- but they also make it easy: In the end, they turn the spotlight on and either show you the monster so that you may gasp or pull out the seaweed for a shared, nervous laugh. Not Pinter. You experience him in the gut, in the heart palpitations, in your intuition. At the end, after the something slimy has wriggled away, you're left with questions, with reservations; quite simply, you never know. At his best, this is what Pinter offers: the possibility of the beast.
In Betrayal, the thing lapping at your legs is the sea of unspoken pain flowing among its three protagonists. You can feel dense misery in the hundreds of pauses which populate the play, each of which represents the thing not said but felt, the confession that swells and subsides before being spoken. Moving backward in time, the play follows a seven-year affair between Emma and her husband's best friend, Jerry, from an awkward reunion between the two long after they have ceased being lovers to their passion's first sparks 11 years earlier. As the play travels into this past, we witness the affair fizzling out after seven years, the moment Emma's husband Robert discovers the truth, and the childlike excitement between the two adulterers that leads up to it. At the end, we see the genesis of it all, not a tender moment, but an awkward, drunken escapade. So much for old times.
Betrayal is a masterfully crafted play, littered with tiny hints and innuendoes, brimming with unanswered questions. What did Robert know and when? What happened on the couple's trip to Torcello? Why did Emma call Jerry after all these years? What lies swilling around in these deep rivers of memory is anyone's guess. Even the facts we do learn are contradicted, because language is a malleable tool that can be bent and twisted to serve the speaker's ends. And in the absence of reliable facts, it is the silences that sizzle. In the case of the Public Domain production, there may be too many sizzling silences; director Robi Polgar and company seem to be taking liberty with the spaces between words, so that a pause doesn't produce much effect by the play's end. Still, as the unhappily married Emma and Robert, Katherine Catmull and David Jones command our attention. Catmull's saucer-like eyes promise and evade so beautifully, and Jones, as the chilling book publisher whose emotions are so submerged they're scraping rock bottom, is riveting. Their scenes together are the strongest, and as our eyes dart back and forth between them, as if we're at a tennis match, we are awash in questions that defy answers.
Betrayal is austere, almost clinical in its dissection of relationships, and in Polgar's production, it is also more American. The actors speak with hardly a trace of an English accent, and quite frankly, it's a relief. Polgar's direction is sharp, in particular the way he glides the characters during scene changes, using their interaction to add to the tension. Where this Betrayal falters is when it wanders from this spartan emotional reserve. As Jerry, Jim Elliott holds his own, but his hand-wringing and grimaces are too overt, and in a few scenes, we are knocked out of the quiet, haunting uncertainty. Interludes of a plaintive Elvis Costello fit the somber mood, but they're more eager and yearning than the play itself ever is. And while the jarring white of James Barker's set design fits nicely, it is dominated by a huge, art-deco style broken window frame, a gigantic blue crack that eats up a large portion of the wall, and other disjointed set pieces that seem to scream: This is about a breakup. But as we wade deeper in the water, as it creeps up past our ankles to our knees, we are overwhelmed by the undercurrents of sadness in its people who have been betrayed not only by each other but by memory and by language itself.
The Homecoming is an uglier, more obstinate vision. And in it, the muck in which we wade is substantially cloudier stuff. Teddy is a philosophy professor who returns from America to his childhood home in the bowels of lower-class England. With him is Ruth, his wife of six years who has never seen Teddy's home or met his family. From their unanticipated arrival, there is tension between them; it bristles in her clipped dismissals that anything is wrong. Maybe she wants to go home; maybe they're on the brink of divorce. Certainly, Teddy himself is worried about his homecoming, and from our introduction to his family, the reason is all too clear. Teddy's mother died years ago and the house is run by his father Max. A butcher by trade, Max is a foul-mouthed geezer whose sport is spewing piss and vinegar, lashing out, cutting people down. Upon meeting his new daughter-in-law, he hurls an onslaught of invective at her -- she is "a smelly scrubber," "a stinking pox-ridden slut"; you get the idea. This sadism is echoed in Max's sons: Joe, the callous dullard with dreams of becoming a famous boxer, and the mysteriously employed Lenny, whose weapon of choice is not verbal barbs but icy indifference. Despite this, it isn't long before Ruth is cozying up to her brothers-in-law, and it's not much longer before we're wondering if old Max wasn't too far off the mark in his initial assessment of her. After a cunning pas de deux of seduction, she engages Lenny and Joe in a menage a trois with her hubby loathsomely looking on. So what the hell is going on? Why does Teddy allow this? And hey, Freud, what's the deal with these guys' dead mother anyway? In The Homecoming, the beast bats against our legs, making our mind race with ideas and imagined explanations for all the noise and incomprehensible bluster onstage.
What is certain is that The Homecoming is a play brimming with creepitude. If you can get past the English accents of this Austin cast (they're all over the map), director Peter Malof's production sinks you into the filth and makes you feel what's gooey in there. Is this fantasy? Twisted reality? Who knows, but like a long day's journey into nightmare it keeps going, maliciousness heaped on top of eroticism so harrowing that at the point poor old Uncle Sam drops dead, you literally don't know whether to laugh or cry. Amy McAndrew plays Ruth as a seemingly prim and proper lady seething with feral hunger. She orchestrates all the moves here, scooching in closer on the couch imperceptibly, swishing her long legs just so, arching an eyebrow, squeezing a line so that it lingers suggestively. Ken Bradley, with his cherub cheeks and bright eyes, seems at first miscast as the lascivious Lenny, but he works against our expectations. On the other hand, Jon Geiger has the perfect physicality for Joe: a sulky hangdog expression, sweet licorice eyes, hulking biceps. The scene in which he practices boxing in a mirror is positively transfixing. But his delivery of Joe's lines, marble-mouthed in the extreme, is too labored. On the other end of the spectrum is Michael Stuart, giving an exacted and puzzling performance, an excruciating vision of a man re-entering the combat zone and practically cowering in fear. As our guide into this world, he remains a riddle of sorts. He is educated and articulate, but his actions are weak and cowardly; we know he came from the same stock as these carnivores, so what's going on? Questions, questions, swishing this way and that. And by the time Ev Lunning, hobbling around with a cane, finally begs Ruth to kiss him on the old grimy mouth, it's so unspeakably icky that I wanted to run from the lake, jump in the shower, and wipe the slime from my toes.
This is what Harold Pinter brings into the theatre -- dark portents of terror that dig in your gut while they needle your brain. In Betrayal, they whisper that trusting someone else fully is impossible. Or, perhaps even more frightening, that trusting ourselves is, too. In The Homecoming, they remind us that our families live within, always, while the people we love may remain forever strangers. In both, it is the possibility of the beast in us.
Betrayal runs through February 20 at The Public Domain Theatre, 807 Congress. Call 474-6202 for info.
The Homecoming runs through February 21 at the John Henry Faulk Living Theatre, 211 W. Fourth. Call 454-TIXS for info.