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Playing Pinter

Drama Desk winners Eve Best and Raul Esparza discuss their roles in the Broadway revival of Harold Pinter's The Homecoming.

By New York City
Eve Best
(© Joseph Marzullo/Retna)
Eve Best
(© Joseph Marzullo/Retna)
Last season was a banner one for British actress Eve Best and American actor Raul Esparza; the pair won Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle Awards -- not to mention Tony Award nominations -- for their work as Josie Hogan in Eugene O'Neill's A Moon for the Misbegotten and Bobby in Stephen Sondheim's Company respectively. Now they're sharing a stage, alongside Ian McShane, Michael McKean, James Frain, and Gareth Saxe, in Daniel Sullivan's revival of Harold Pinter's dysfunctional family play The Homecoming, which opens on December 16. TheaterMania spoke with these two consummate actors just as they were about to start rehearsals.

THEATERMANIA: So is this your first time doing a Harold Pinter play?
EVE BEST: Yes, I'm very excited about it. I met him once. I didn't have anything to say to him except 'Oh my God, you're Harold Pinter!' and he was sort of 'Yes, I am.' I think he's an extraordinary writer. One of the reasons you feel proud to be English is because of people like him.

TM: How does playing Ruth compare to playing Josie Hogan in A Moon for the Misbegotten?
EB: It's like they're almost mirror images of each other. In terms of the femininity, you've got Josie with her low-esteem, giving herself away totally unrequitedly. And with Ruth, you've got this woman who's absolutely in control and receiving everything. She's completely in charge of these five men who are all giving to her. And so it's very interesting to play these two women back to back. And that definitely was a consideration for me in taking the part. You have to say to yourself, what's the role like? Is it something I've done before? Is it something that's going to challenge me and use different parts of myself? Also, it's something I'm not quite sure I know how to do. I think that's important when you don't know.

TM: What do you see as the major difference between Pinter and O'Neill?
EB: I would say they are the polar opposites of each other. With O'Neill, you've got this American spirit all talking and feeling and everything's out and everything's expressed to the max. And you go through these incredible psychological tortured journeys. And then with Pinter everything is inside. It's so contained -- and not straight-forward. With O'Neill, it's like you're fighting with a broadsword in the middle of a battlefield and you're just slashing about with blood and guts and everything's there. And Pinter's got like this thick glass screen and you're just touching the surface. I sensed in my initial readings of this play the huge violence and frustration and sex and all this stuff thrashing about underneath. And you feel like if you take off the lid then all hell will break loose.

TM: Do you feel a new comfort level being in New York this time?
EB: I was just overwhelmed the last time I was here. I'm so happy to be back and to see familiar faces. It feels like in a way I've never left. But still; I mean this morning on my way to work with the steam coming up from a manhole cover, it felt like a scene from a Marilyn Monroe movie. I'll always be awestruck by New York.

TM: Do you think audiences are expecting great things from you because of your work as Josie?
EB: Don't say things like that. I'm terrified already! I have to put those voices away and just concentrate on the job at hand. When you start thinking about that you just get so terrified that you can't even breathe let alone get onstage.

TM: Will you miss spending the winter in England?
EB: Not at all. The only thing I will miss is the hills and greenery where my mom lives in Wales. But I can't wait for winter here! I hope it snows, I hope it's like a scene from White Christmas.

TM: Do you think ahead in terms of your career?
EB: I don't think ahead really. Acting is a job that something could happen to you tomorrow and you don't know where. So you have to be quite able to get up and go with it. I know for sure that I would be very very happy to spend more time here and make this a home away from home. In a few years, though, I would love to play Cleopatra.

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Raul Esparza
(© Joseph Marzullo/WENN)
Raul Esparza
(© Joseph Marzullo/WENN)
THEATERMANIA: Is this your first time doing Pinter?
RAUL ESPARZA: It's my first time doing Pinter professionally. I actually studied with Pinter while I was in college. I was part of a program at the Royal Court Theatre in the summer of 1991. And he had just been directing The Caretaker with Donald Pleasance and he came to speak to us, and taught us a little bit that summer. I was in the room with the great Harold Pinter -- and none of us knew what to say to him because you're completely in awe of him. He's the greatest living playwright in the world.

TM: How did this part come about for you?
RE: They called me and said we want you to play Lenny. I said I can't believe it; that'd be tremendous. I've known of the play since college; it's one of those plays everybody reads. The thing is it's not an academic piece. It's one of the sexiest, dirtiest, meanest, things that have ever been put on stage. And I hope it can live up to its ugliness and heat. There's a sort of reverence that's attached to Pinter but he's damned funny and really sick. I think that's fun.

TM: What's the transition like from Stephen Sondheim to Harold Pinter?
RE: This is not that far from Sondheim. It's the same sort of working on a masterpiece; working with a writer who's incredibly efficient, knows exactly what they want, puts it on the page and you have to live up to the material. By the time you're done with the run, hopefully you'll be a better actor than you were when you walked through the door. You have a responsibility to the world of it and also a responsibility in making it come alive in any way. There's no point in treating it like a museum piece. And I think that it's going to be fun for me to touch base with the stuff I started doing before I came to New York. I've done plays off-Broadway, but this is a great opportunity for me to do something serious on Broadway. Now, if I had just finished doing Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and came into Pinter, I would say this would be a shock.

TM: Is it nice to take a rest from musicals?
RE: It is, although I miss singing. Singing can be so much fun. It's such an incredible feeling to just let the music carry you. But there's musicality in this too.

TM: Has your working process changed over the years?
RE: The biggest thing I learned from John Doyle, our director on Company, is not to plan ahead and just trust what's going on in the room. There's nothing I can bring to a show by myself outside of rehearsals that's going to be anywhere near as good as what we'll come up with as a company. And, working with really good actors is how you learn. People who are better than you always make you a better actor in the end. I know that I learned how to act from the other actors in Chicago I was watching. In fact, I moved to Chicago because of the Steppenwolf production of The Grapes of Wrath on Broadway, which was in the same theater we're in now. So who knows what can come out of this experience watching these sort of masters work?

TM: You have a recurring role now on the TV series Pushing Daisies. Are you going to go Hollywood on us?
RE: I'm not burning any bridges on Broadway. This is where I belong; this is home. You get off the plane from LA and you look at the city, and you just say "Oh look at that, it's Times Square. God bless Manhattan."


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