Playwright: harold Pinter at: Signal ensemble at the Chopin, 1543 W. Division Phone: 773-347-1350; $15-$20 Runs through: aug. 30
An elderly couple live by the seashore, where Petey works as a deck-chair attendant and Meg runs a boarding house for summer visitors. Their only tenant is a surly retired pianist named Stanley. One day, two mysterious men, one Jewish and the other Irish, arrive to rekindle what appears to have been a previous relationship with the reclusive transient, who becomes increasingly agitated by this unexpected reunion.
Before he took up playwrighting, Harold Pinter was an actor, so he knew that what actors want are intensely repressed emotions and complex psychological dynamics unrestricted, insofar as possible, by plot, setting or external logic. Nearly a half-century of strict adherence to this aesthetic earned him a knighthood. It also earned him iconic status among fledgling actors eager to delve the occult depths of his enigmatic scenarios, as well as the likewise unmitigated exasperation of audiences, who, to this day, may be spotted shaking their heads in befuddlement and muttering, 'But what is it about?' as they exit the theater.
It is to the credit of director Aaron Snook that we go home satisfied that we have seen a bona fide story, however ambiguous its imagery. To English playgoers, the sinister Goldberg and McCann could be hostile government agents or meddling social workers, but since this is America, we recognize them immediately as gangsters, and their business with Stanley as a vendetta for some long-ago betrayal of underworld loyalties. And at the play's premiere in 1958, landlady Meg was played as a dotty old harridan, but in this production, her maternal cosseting of her sullen boy has a flirtatious edge, as does the neighbor lassie's sexually provocative behavior toward the smooth-spoken strangers.
Anyway, the key to enjoyment of Pinter's puzzles isn't how well we know the author's mind, but how much the actors know. The company assembled for this Signal Ensemble production—in particular, Mary O'Dowd as the chirpy housemistress, Will Schutz as the avuncular inquisitor of many aliases and Joseph Stearns as the withdrawn Stanley—replicate their commonplace personae with such internalized consistency that we never question the more cryptic details of their motives or actions. When Stanley is finally led away in a catatonic stupor, after allegedly suffering a nervous breakdown, we may suspect that there is more to this turn of events than has been disclosed, but the uneasiness awakened by his supplication is unlikely to trouble us for any longer than it will the witnesses who send him, however reluctantly, to his doom.