Playwright: Harold Pinter. At: Writers' Theatre, 664 Vernon Ave., Glencoe. Tickets: 847-242-6000; www.writerstheatre.org; $35-$65. Runs through: March 25, 2012
British critic Irving Wardle coined the term "Comedy of Menace" for the early plays of Harold Pinter (1930-2008). The Caretaker, produced in 1960, is a quintessential example, a masterpiece of ironic humor, not-so-suppressed violence, pregnant pause and language as a sharply-honed weapon. Typical of Pinter's work through the mid-1960's, The Caretaker reflects his rough-and-tumble, working-class London upbringing. Typical of most of his work throughout his career, it features a small cast (three men), a confined setting (a single room) and scanty information about the world outside except through the distorted boasts, faulty memories and outright lies of the occupants, who constantly jockey for position. It's not that each wants to be Top Dog, but that each wants validation.
So here we are, in a grotty room in a crumbling London house where Ashton, perhaps mid-30s, has saved a jobless old man, Davies, from a beating and brought him back to kip on a junk-covered bed. When Ashton's menacing younger brother, Mick, who owns the house, shows up, Davies must ingratiate himself with both in order to stay on as caretaker for the house. Davies and Mick are born connivers and talkers while Ashton, with a history of electroshock therapy, is an almost-mystical figure of preternatural temperance. Through various psychological and expository twists, Davies overreaches himself and the brothers prove that blood is thicker than anything else.
Much of Pinter's workThe Caretaker includeswas considered enigmatic and puzzling when it was new. That it now seems crystal-clear is testimony to the powerful influence Pinter's work has exerted on the generation of playwrights who followed him (Mamet certainly comes to mind), as well as on audiences which have been "educated up" to his art, craft and message.
The clarity and precision of this particular production are testimony to director Ron OJ Parson's crisp interpretation, guiding actors William J. Norris (Davies), Anish Jethmalani (Ashton) and Kareem Bandealy (Mick) through detailed, engaged, physical-yet-unfussy performances. Jethmalani channels Ashton's stunted feelings through a slack body and taught face frozen in smile-like grimace or threatening frown, but never anything more. Bandealy is powerful, even sensual, the type of young man who revels in his physicality and wits. Chicago icon Norris is at the top of his game as desperate Davis, far too fastidious and forward for his circumstances.
However, this production immerses the audience in more than acting alone. Jack McGaw's incredible set is a complete four-walled room within an already-intimate theater. The audience doesn't look on, but is inside the room sharing the house, its hallway and doorway with the characters themselves. Heather Gilbert's lighting is suitably cool-toned and thin, while Janice Pytel's costumes fit both the physical and psychological shapes of the characters.