I’ll be honest, I probably haven’t read, much less seen, a Harold Pinter play since college. I think I saw a bad production of Betrayal about ten years ago and that was it. Mostly it seems like Pinter is someone who’s name gets dropped when you see a particularly unnerving domestic drama, a play with a lot of meaningful pauses or a very distinctly stylized form of dialogue. I always think of him as a playwright we studied back in the day, who is a significant part of theater history but isn’t that relevant now. So when my pal Amanda invited me to see The Homecoming I went with the idea that this would be an interesting bit of theatrical history, like seeing a faithful re-staging of Look Back In Anger or something. Little did I expect that I was going to experience a play that was every bit as disturbing and powerful as it must have been 40 years ago.
Over the past few weeks I have been to a number of workshops and staged readings by emerging and “next big thing” playwrights – some of whom have been labeled innovative and/or brash – and none of them hold a candle to Pinter.
40 years down the road and his work is still stylistically challenging, still psychologically unsettling, still more quietly surreal and emotionally insightful than 90% of the work out there. This production of The Homecoming is funny, powerful and creepy. All the actors give excellent performances – focused, clean, decisive. It would be unfair to single anyone out because there’s only 6 people in the cast, but I am going to say that Raul Esparza hits this amazing balance of cheeky, threatening, comic and pathetic. With all the actors, not a movement – or moment- is wasted. Every syllable of every word, every glance, every intention, ever single detail of each is meticulously considered and flawlessly executed. It is really remarkable. And the performances (under Daniel Sullivan’s direction) pull Pinter’s sparse, scathing efficiency of language to the front of the piece. It is like watching a well-choreographed sword fight or some kind of cruel psychological architecture, if that makes sense.
As someone who usually is disparaging of the time and money spent on mediocre theater above (the metaphorical) 14th St. it was really thrilling to see Pinter’s work given this level of production and to realize how and why great writing withstands the test of time. It also makes you realize how enormous the impact of TV and Film is. Because the lure of TV and Film robs the theater of its best playwrights. In Pinter’s day a playwright would spend their career honing their singular, idiosyncratic voice, burrowing every deeper into a specific aesthetic, always exploring the theatrical event in new ways. these days the writers who have these singular voices are often snapped up by major media before they fully mature. I’m not going to get into the whole Isherwood catfight but I have to say that it would behoove theater and tv/film producers alike to join forces and reinvest in nurturing writers – not just those who are creating “television for the stage” (you know who I’m talking about) – but those who are pursuing the offbeat and idiosyncratic, the unconventional and the difficult.
Oh and merry Xmas!