Watered Down Pinter

caretakerPinter’s work can be very tricky. With all the purposeful pauses and odd behaviors, there needs to be an underlying drive in the characters, pushing the tension and action forward. Something almost subterranean. And this is what is unfortunately lacking in the production of The Caretaker at the Berkshire Theatre Festival in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, now in its 80th season. Of the three actors on stage, only one is fully up to the demands of his part. Jonathan Epstein as the old derelict Davies, brought indoors from a café fight to the single room where all the action occurs, is excellent. He has the requisite paranoid distrust that drives Davies, the endless resentment, and at the same time the cunning self-pity and delusions.

This is a man who can moan and groan over his need for a decent pair of shoes, and then quickly reject any shoes offered as not quite right in size or color. Nothing pleases him. But once he has established himself in the room, grown used to his drafty bed in the midst of a vast pile of junked objects, he is loathe to give up his spot. Epstein’s portrayal gives him his full grungy majesty. He provokes both pity and rage.

But the two brothers can’t quite generate sufficient energy to move the play in ways that involve us. James Barry as Mick, the younger brother who owns the flat and likes to think of himself as a successful business man and real estate developer, has some of the macho moves and physical violence the part calls for, but without the deeply disturbing menace that Pinter’s early work requires. Menace is the name of the game.

Here is where we might fault the director, Eric Hill, who said in an interview, “Pinter is consciously dealing with Godot in a British style. Instead of two men in a desolate outside space, you have three homeless men in an attic room. . . . There is a real struggle for identity.” Certainly Pinter was influenced by Beckett, but this play is not about waiting or identity; it’s about turf and power, and the unsettling tension that a stranger can evoke in any domestic arrangement. And there’s no Godot. “Identity” is always a difficult theme to present on stage—so it’s a good thing that wasn’t Pinter’s aim—it’s so amorphous, and lends itself to the worst sort of self-help thinking. And besides, the two brothers are not homeless. One brother, Aston, is ensconced in the room in order to fix up the place, and the other lives elsewhere but comes by to check on his brother’s progress. No, it is clearly about control of territory and the willingness to stand up for oneself. It’s closer to warfare than to Waiting for Godot. But this production doesn’t get nearly harsh enough to illuminate the cunning brutality of survival tactics. What we get here is Pinter Lite.

Of course, Pinter is ambiguous and mysterious enough to allow of a multitude of interpretations. It’s possible that this one is just not to my taste. I was particularly disappointed in Tommy Schrider’s portrayal of the older brother, Aston, who has had mental problems in the past and seems to be barely functioning as a kind of handy man, mainly concerned with fixing the plug on a toaster and building a shed in the back garden. The work shed is necessary, he states again and again, so that he can really get down to work on the ludicrously overcrowded very run-down space that he inhabits. (The set and lighting, by the way, work well to evoke this attic space cum junkshop.)

Schrider plays Aston as close to catatonic, with a mad gleam always in his wide-open eyes, and generally an odd, brightly bewildered smile on his face. Such a look might be interesting at certain points in the action, but to wear it throughout makes him seem like the product of a lobotomy—which he did not have at the asylum, but rather electro-shock therapy about a dozen years earlier. But then, Schrider may have been directed to play the part this way. Wherever the interpretation came from, it makes Aston’s long monologue at the end of act two totally unnecessary. We know this man has long ago lost his marbles.

Nonetheless, despite my various reservations, I’d still encourage people to catch this play (before its run ends on June 28) simply because Pinter is no doubt the greatest English playwright of the second half of the 20th century. Anything he has written is worthy of attention. - Victoria Sullivan

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Ms. Sullivan is a poet and playwright who lives in Manhattan and has a little cabin outside of Woodstock, NY. When not brooding, she is generally traveling, writing, or staring at the trees. She also loves to laugh.

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