Playwright: Harold Pinter
At: A Red Orchid Theatre, 1531 N. Wells
Phone: 312-943-8722; $14-$20
Runs through: Dec. 3
BY MARY SHEN BARNIDGE
Harold Pinter was an actor before becoming a playwright; his early dramas constructed along the lines of scene study exercises. But when you put more than three actors onstage, the dynamic grows more complex than I want-you want-he wants, and so it was inevitable that the author's first experiments with lengthier plots and larger casts should waver somewhat in their focus. The Hothouse was his second effort, premiering in 1958—a generic angry-young-man diatribe, its didacticism uneasily cohabiting with Freudian psychology to forge a combination leading to its closing after a single performance.
Skip ahead to 1980, when anything with Pinter's name affixed to it drew the unquestioning adoration of literary scholars busily probing its enigmatic themes. Out of the trunk came The Hothouse, unchanged over 22 years, its adolescent spleen now hailed as criticism of precisely the social injustices that so incense Red Orchid Theatre: the oppression of humble citizens by stuffy, power-hungry bosses ( governmental, industrial, domestic—they're all alike, don'tcha know? ) whose tyranny is ripe for toppling by a proletariat revolution.
Dado knows better than to recycle this weary song as Pinter applies it to a Stalinesque government-run hospital, her direction concentrating instead on the individual motives shaping the facility's management: the rivalry of the upper-echelon elder-son surrogates for the favor of the CEO father-surrogate, the dogged obedience of the low-level youngest-son surrogate, the desperate supplication of the support-staff mother-surrogate for male approval and the the threat posed by a stranger's unexpected incentive.
Further diversion is supplied by an aural schematic that lulls us with aria-like deliveries of the long speeches and vocal harmonies reminiscent of chamber music for the conversational passages. Finally, there is the spectacle, the piéce de résistance being Jennifer Engstrom's office bimbo, clad in pinstripes and bondage shoes, her face so starkly painted that she looks like an enameled-finish robot lurking amid scenic designer Grant Sabin's welter of industrial wires, steel furniture and HVAC ductwork.
Corporate drones scornful of cuddly office humor will find their pessimism affirmed in this shivery parable—and so will the legions of election-year malcontents, for that matter.