Jonathan Pryce in The Caretaker
(© Shane Reid)
Jonathan Pryce in The Caretaker
(© Shane Reid)
With a play as darkly vibrant as Harold Pinter's groundbreaking 1960 work, The Caretaker, now at BAM's Harvey Theater, it can be hard to go wrong. With expert actors Jonathan Pryce, Alan Cox, and Alex Hassell taking control under Christopher Morahan's commanding direction, it's even harder to miss Pinter's desired disorienting mark.

In this pithy work -- full of menace, humor and ambiguity -- the aged and garrulous Bernard Jenkins, also known as Mac Davies (Pryce, bearded, impossibly scruffy and speaking in raping tones), arrives one pre-downpour day at a dingy London walk-up where he has been brought by the tenant, Aston (Cox, deliberately subdued almost throughout).

Once ensconced, Jenkins slowly comes to believe he's the primary occupant--alhough not before enduring a series of volatile run-ins with Aston's unpredictable brother, Mick (Hassell, swaggering for all he's worth in sinister leather).

Almost immediately after sizing up his new surroundings, Jenkins blurts a diatribe against foreigners. Mick, seen in shadow at the start, disappears without speaking, and when returning behaves threateningly to Jenkins. Still, Jenkins and Mick can be madly funny in their seesawing confrontations -- more than Aston, who spends his time trying to repair a toaster, but who does eventually interrupt his preoccupation to deliver a halting speech about a shock-therapy bout.

Indeed, any crew taking up the playwright's imagined aftermath must decide where the dramatic emphases will be placed. This treatment focuses on the less dangerous aspects Pinter infused into his flight of squalid fancy in favor of the amusing vacillations inherent in even small-scale power-plays. It's not that the atmosphere is airily light, but it's decidedly lighter than it has been in other equally adroit hands.

It's also possible that because the set by Eileen Diss has been positioned behind a wide expanse of the Harvey theater floor that it results in a distancing effect on the audience -- and that Pinter's fear factor is mitigated.

She also makes certain, for instance, that a plaster Buddha observes the proceedings from an upstage tray, that a disconnected gas stove is situated near the single metal bed Jenkins occupies, and that the bucket hung from the ceiling hovers over the much-discussed clutter.

Sound designer Tom Lishman sees that the leaking-roof raindrops hit the bucket resonantly, and lighting designer Colin Grenfell makes certain the upstage wall becomes a transparent scrim so that Mick, often hulking behind it, is noticed. Conscientious caretakers all, they complement the team rendering a top-notch Caretaker.