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by Margaret Croyden

Harold Pinter All the Way

Photo of Margaret Croyden
Margaret Croyden
 The Lincoln Center Festival 2001: Harold Pinter All the Way.
July 10-July 29, 2001
Various venues 212-875-5928
Reviewed by Margaret Croyden July 26, 2001

The Lincoln Center Festival comes once a year and has always been possible to find an amalgam of music, dance, opera and theater. And this gives one a chance to chose. But this year the main attraction, despite the varied programs, was a large retrospective of the work of the British playwright Harold Pinter. It was Harold Pinter all the way--his plays, (nine of them) his movies (8 of them), lectures about Pinter (six of them) and Harold Pinter himself acting in one play and directing another. Unfortunately the Festival is now in its last week but it sure has been a treat for Pinter fans. You may have been bored by some of the work, but at the very least, there were plenty of chances to examine the 30 year career of this amazing playwright.

Two of his very short plays, "One For the Road" and "A Kind of Alaska," (back to back) opened the first week of the Pinter bash. Written in the early 1980's, these one act plays (each under an hour) are typical of Pinter at that point in his career. Presented to a large audience at the Alice Tulley Hall, the two plays are dark and dismal--and essentially boring. In "One For the Road" a man drinks whiskey and interrogates someone--a prisoner?--and this he does with all the evil at his command. Presumably this is the political Pinter and his take on conditions in a fascist country. The play does have sinister underpinnings, but the flimsy plot and its repetitive quality defuses any real theatrical conflict. Since the staging by Karel Reisz is uninventive and bland, despite the attraction of Harold Pinter himself in the lead role, the play seemed as though it might have been written for radio. "A Kind of Alaska" on the same bill is a story of woman who comes awake after being in a deep coma for many years. She does not recognize herself, her family, or her situation. Inspired by "Awakenings" the Oliver Sacks story, the plot is untheatrical--very talky and somewhat pointless. Staging these two minor plays in a large concert hall, poorly equipped for sight or sound, was ill-advised. Not only did the actors seem diminished in the large hall--their faces quite indistinct-- but the poor acoustics made their speech inaudible and,in some cases, voices were reduced to squeaks. Whatever possessed the management to stage such tiny plays (with two or three actors) in a concert hall is a mystery. Perhaps in an intimate theater these plays might have come alive.

However, the one performance that made up for the others is "The Homecoming," Mr. Pinter's truly great work. More than thirty years have elapsed since "The Homecoming" was unveiled in New York and I am happy to report the play still works. With the brilliant Ian Holm in the role of the father, and the excellent director Robin Lefevre's ability to capture the Pinter dialogue, and the Pinter rhythms, and pull the whole play together as if it were a formal dance, this production is perfect.

"The Homecoming" has a fairly simple plot line. A former butcher, Max, lives in a run-down low class house in London with his two sons and his brother, his wife having passed away but not forgotten. One son, Joey, a weak and simple minded fellow, is learning to be a boxer; the second son, Lenny is an accomplished "business man," a pimp; a third son, Teddy is away in America teaching philosophy at a college. In the middle of the night Teddy comes home with his wife, Ruth, whom the family has never met. In the course of the play Ruth manages to capture the household; she takes control of the men, becomes their sex object (literally) and, finally takes center stage, displacing the old father; as queen bee she becomes the supreme ruler. All the while her husband watches this bizarre transformation and returns home alone.

Admittedly, the story line is grotesque, even surreal, a mixture of reality and fantasy. But as mysterious as it might seem, the play has a multitude of meanings. Underneath is the struggle for power, the contest for sexual dominance, the control of money and property, the emptiness of lower middle class life, the symbolism of the biblical Ruth in an "alien land," the ritual and rites of installing the new matriarch, and the hidden desires and unconscious longings in the male psyche. All told, it is a tale about ruthlessness, a humorous but hideous comedy depicting the predatory nature of man. A bleak view indeed, but so rich in innuendo, so nuanced and ambiguous, it is as riveting as a clever cross word puzzle. Especially brilliant is the famous Pinter dialogue. The rhythms and monosyllabic lines are stark and poetic, they also add a note of comedy, however menacing. The language is controlled through poetic precision: repeated words, ambiguous ellipses, deliberate silences, and the famous Pinter pause used primarily for the characters' to regroup their psychic forces, plan their next moves, and control, or hide their animosity. The play has no realistic linear story; the entire script is a giant metaphor suggesting the primitive, tribal behavior of mankind-- with its crude and animalistic aggression.

About Ian Holm. Holm played Lenny in the original production some thirty years ago, and was unforgettable in the role. Now looking aged, with white hair, he plays the father, and he still is unforgettable. At home on the stage, his characterization is complete: the rapid fire speech, the endless outbursts, the nasty remarks, the snide boorishness, and his crude domination over everyone until Ruth comes "home." At the end, Ian Holm, in a supremely brilliant moment--a moment you are unlikely to see on the stage too often--revels himself to be an actor of tremendous power and originality.

The other star is the director, Robin Lefevre, who completely understands this play. Every move on stage is detailed, every pause is meaningful, every movement of the hand, the leg, and the body is choreographed and coincides with the characters' intentions. Each character is distinct, his inner life plain, nothing is lost; each moment counts; a lot of time is taken, and yet the play moves. The audience sits as if in a trance clinging to every word, anxious for more. A truly great night in the theater. Would that "The Homecoming" could find a home in New York for a well deserved run. [Croyden]

Margaret Croyden's most recent book is a memoir"In The Shadow of the Flame: Three Journeys," (Continuum Publishing). Her pieces on theater appear frequently here and in the pages of "The New York Times."

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