Fractured Family Life

homecoming_pinterThe Homecoming is not my favorite Harold Pinter play, but almost any Pinter play tends to be better than anything else around, so it is wonderful to have this production on Broadway until April 13. I certainly recommend going. With Daniel Sullivan directing competently, and such fine actors as Ian McShane and Eve Best starring, it is effective in exactly those jolting ways that characterize early Pinter works.

The play is mean, funny, dark, disturbing, and mysterious. It sabotages the family by recognizing it as the perfect unit for delivery of pain and humiliation, the perfect power field on which to destroy or infantilize one’s opponents (who are all the other family members). In early Pinter, say up through 1965 when The Homecoming was first performed in London, the turf war reigns supreme. Here we have a large home in unfashionable North London, inhabited by four men:
Max (brilliant played by McShane), the aging aggressive patriarch; his weaker brother Sam, the chauffer; and Max’s sons, Lenny (in a stinging rendition by Raul Esparza), the procurer; and Joey the slow witted, would-be boxer. Into this all-male environment walks Beth (given a bravura performance by Ms. Best) and her husband Teddy (the oldest son who has been in America teaching philosophy for years) for a surprise “homecoming.” In Pinter such a visit is hardly a pretty prospect.

With the inclusion of a woman in their midst, all hell slowly breaks out in the home. The action involves a kind of mating dance performed by the various male characters when provoked by Ruth, who turns out to be rather ruth-less. Set designer Eugene Lee has created a large, mostly open room, without a lot of distracting stuff, as the playing field for this heated competition. Brief bouts of violence and sexual play tumble through the conventional room.

The only other female character is the long-dead mother, Jesse, who is spoken of a number of times during the play by various characters, in that wonderfully complicated Pinter way in which the “truth,” whatever that is, is always floating just out of reach. Jesse is both “the backbone of the family” and “a slut-bitch of a wife,” as described by her husband Max. If Jesse was in fact the slut she would appear to have been (after Sam admits late in the play that he once drove her around in his car accompanied by close family friend Mac, with whom she fornicated in the back seat), then certainly one theme of this play is betrayal. In fact, the whole action of the play is one betrayal after another: the father of the sons, whom he dominates; the brothers of each other in various games of one-upmanship; Sam of his brother Max and vice versa; and ultimately, Teddy of his wife Ruth by leaving her in this distinctly corrupt family home. Of course he had said of his family when they first arrived and before she had met anyone: “They’re very warm people, really. Very warm. They’re my family. They’re not ogres.”

Since we’ve already experienced the vicious family gang when Teddy makes this remark, the audience laughs uproariously at the outrageous falsity of his characterization. They are in fact ogres. They eat their young or perform some perverse variation of such activity, with hints of child abuse and incest. As Max says to his brother Sam of their family life together, it’s “one flow of stinking pus after another.” If we cast ourselves back to 1965 in America, when we were all still pretending that Leave it to Beaver or Father Knows Best actually represented some version of family reality, then the uncensored horrors of this nameless North London family become all the more blackly humorous.

Pinter is engaged in breaking down certain old, honored value systems in this play: the good mother, the loving father, the loyal brothers. All bunk. His is a dark, destructive vision, although quite furiously funny in places. It’s life as a perilous game, involving significant risks. In many ways this play presents a very ordinary scene, with people seeking food, drink, and a little entertainment, say in the form of watching the horses run, or even just reading a newspaper. But the ordinary generally cloaks the extraordinary in Pinter, just as language, he once said, is “a constant strategem to cover nakedness.” So each character has a different agenda, and what he or she says and does might prove more of an acting out of strategy than a simple expression of need or desire. In games we pretend and wear masks. We hide our true motives. We are all seeking to capture the flag or the pussy or the power. The brightest son might prove to be the weakest. A bully might be reduced to craven begging for a kiss. So it is likely that we can’t see the victors until that moment when the lights go down upon a final, revealing tableau.

At the end of this production of The Homecoming, my friends turned to me and said, “And what was that about?” We proceeded to put forward several quite different interpretations of what we had seen. We talked on as we walked to the subway. As the train came in, one friend admitted that he had no idea what Pinter was getting at. To me, such diversity of response is the perfect theatrical experience. Who needs a play that is so unambiguous that there is nothing to discuss when it is over? – Victoria Sullivan

The Homecoming is playing at the Cort Theatre, 138 West 48th Street, NYC, through April 13, 2008.

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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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