Home is where the harsh is
Published: February 9, 2011
By Harold Pinter
Through Feb. 20 at Center Stage
Departing artistic director Irene Lewis’ final directorial effort gives Center Stage one of the odder productions of one of Harold Pinter’s most enigmatic plays. Set designer Riccardo Hernández has turned the Pearlstone Theater’s expansive stage into a right proper working-class home in mid-1960s London. Fading blue-striped wallpaper lines the living room, where shabby chairs and a sofa the color of old pub walls sit looking defeated by time. A floral print wallpaper the color of tobacco-stained teeth covers the walls in the entryway behind the living room, the molding of the wall cutout between the two rooms a bit derelict from where one wall was removed to make the cavernous living area. And it’s in this now rundown domestic space that The Homecoming’s rundown men go at each other with the spiteful ferocity of vintage 1960s Pinter.
Penned in 1964 and first produced in ’65, The Homecoming begins with a question—“What have you done with the scissors?”—and continues with such questioning confrontations for two acts and two hours without ever arriving at any answers. The sixtysomething Max (Jarlath Conroy) is the man searching for the scissors, presuming his son Lenny (Trent Dawson) did something with them. The conversation begins as an accusation and leaps right into a row, with Lenny calling the old man a daft prat and Max threatening Lenny with his cane before telling his son how he and his mate MacGregor used to muscle their way around West London. It’s the default tenor of their exchanges, compact jabs of memories and challenges that constitute communication. These are conversations as knife fights, and speakers take their time to choose words carefully, like a butcher picking the blade that most easily finds its way through flesh and bone.
Max was a butcher himself, following in his father’s footsteps. His brother Sam (Laurence O’Dwyer) didn’t take to the calling, becoming a chauffeur instead. Sam lives here too, as does youngest son Joey (Sebastian Naskaris), a pugilist in training who works demolition during the day. They’re all familiar with the combative pong of talking with Max, a man who swings his words now that his fists are no longer potent. And male potency is the variable steeping in the silences of this tense play, obliquely introduced when Max first refers to his late wife Jessie in the opening scene:
Mind you, she wasn’t such a bad woman. Even though it made me sick just to look at her rotten stinking face, she wasn’t such a bad bitch. I gave her the best bleeding years of my life, anyway.
Eldest son Teddy (Steven Epp) returns to this passive-aggressive all-male household after six years in America, where he’s a philosophy professor and father to three boys with Ruth (Felicity Jones), who has come with him to meet the family for the first time. They arrive in the dead of night, when everybody else is asleep, and though they’ve just come from holiday in Venice, there’s something not quite right between them. Their exchanges are as precisely opaque as the men’s are prickly, a tension that doesn’t get articulated but played out over the course of their stay.
Just whose homecoming this is becomes one of Pinter’s many cruel ironies, and the cast has a blast needling each other with the script’s multi-layered brutality. Dialect consultant Gillian Lane-Plescia has prepped the players well, as Homecoming’s lines and effectiveness rely on the cadences of British accents. Irish-born Conroy and the calmly predatory Dawson make the most of singsong parries and thrusts of working-class London speak, twisting and sharpening meaning and intent with every rise in volume, stressed syllable, and curt question. Lenny goes for Teddy’s jugular early on, somewhat sarcastically asking, “Do you detect a certain logical incoherence in the central affirmations of Christian theism?” before going in for the kill: “What do you make of all this business of being and not being?”
It’s a core concern in this play, who people are and who they’re not, that spirals out of control thanks to Ruth. She—Ruth specifically in this “family,” the female in the abstract—is missing from this all-male pride, and Ruth’s interactions with Teddy and his brothers reveal a woman in flux, simmering between who she was/is in America and who she was/can be back home in London. At first the men try to decide that for her: mother, wife, whore, companion—she’s been accused of all before, seemingly, embracing all as well. Some power balance is shifting here, some stasis is being disrupted and recalibrated. Nobody is going to be the same after Teddy and Ruth’s visit, but Pinter isn’t about to show you how.
The stage blocking reinforces this tense transformation. The cast reveals weaknesses through reactions and gestures, where the content of Max’s words—nostalgia or bile?—affects the postures in the room. That living room is a cage where people regard each other suspiciously from opposite sides, and their words become more lethal the closer they get, until mouths touch in embraces that are as coldly precise as an assassin’s bullet. The play’s silences are just as deadly, less pauses for laughs or dramatic pivots and more like the unbearable quiet that invades a room when a gunman has to reload.
And it’s in these quiets that this production becomes the most curious. Pinter’s dialogue doesn’t have a flow as much as it possesses an exact emotional throughline, and this Homecoming cast has the uncomfortably malicious comedy down pat but somehow dilutes the suffocating tension. It’s not so much a knock as a baffling mood: on opening night the laughs came steadily, but the play’s sudden darts into dysfunctional family hell didn’t produce nervous whiplash but, well, more laughter. Maybe that’s a fault less with the production and more with the audience, as The Homecoming asks you to go with the characters into the deep, family dark—and stay there, staring into the bottomless chasm of what comes next.
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