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Ian Holm in The Homecoming
(Photo: Stephanie Berger)
More than three decades ago, Harold Pinter was asked in one of those interviews that must have gotten on his nerves what his work was about. Instantly, he said, "The weasel under the cocktail cabinet." When accepting the German Shakespeare Prize in 1970, he repudiated the by then widely quoted remark, claiming it had just popped out and meant nothing. "I can sum up none of my plays," he added. "I can describe none of them, except to say: This is what happened. This is what they said, this is what they did."

But Pinter's facile comment about the weasel may have more significance than he's willing to credit. The reticent, complicated figures that people his many plays and the situations in which they find themselves arise, by the artist's own admission, from his unconscious, yet have sufficient meaning to start thousands of theatergoers worldwide discussing them. Perhaps a weasel under the cocktail cabinet, metaphorically suggesting something potentially destructive threatening polite society's preserve, is after all an excellent description of many of the domestic dramas in Pinter's canon.

It is certainly apt with regard to The Homecoming, which was just given an impeccable production by Ireland's Gate Theater as part of the Harold Pinter retrospective at the Lincoln Center Festival 2001. Prior to arriving in New York, this look back at Pinter's contribution and influence had a short season in Dublin and London; in the latter theater burg, it overlapped with a revival at the Donmar Warehouse of Sam Shepard's A Lie of the Mind. This was serendipitous, as both plays are family dramas with a difference. Whereas most plays in the genre--dating at least from Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's Journey Into Night--are about what we've come reflexively to call dysfunctional families, Pinter and Shepard are writing about families that have slipped way beyond dysfunction into some realm where the entire fabric of civilization looks to be disintegrating.

But while Shepard's dim view of the family's chance for happy survival plays out in a world of contemporary barbarism, Pinter shows us a much more intelligent and wily, if not formally educated, family going down history's drain. In The Homecoming, the family observed consists of an argumentative father called Max (Ian Holm); his three sons, Lenny, Joey, and Teddy (Ian Hart, Jason O'Mara, and Nick Dunning); and his deceased wife's brother, Sam (John Kavanagh). The balance, if it can be called that, of power is disturbed when the oldest son brings Ruth (Lia Williams), his wife of six years, to meet the restless relatives.

Ruth, by doing little more than crossing and re-crossing her legs, begins to usurp Max's patriarchic community and change it, or perhaps restore it, to a matriarchal domain. (Sitting with legs crossed as a sign of refinement is a directorial emblem of this production.) Actually, Ruth does more than shift position to declare her authority: In one of the most sinister moments in all of Pinter's pieces, often celebrated for their quiet menace, Ruth insists that the lubricious Lenny drink from a cocktail glass she's holding, then licks it with distinct sexual suggestiveness before handing it over. Later on, in front of her husband, who's holding her coat and waiting for her to slip into it, she has a romantic tumble with Joey on--and then off--the living-room couch. Eventually, Ruth is prevailed on to stay behind when her husband returns to work. Then, sitting in the club chair that has earlier been described as Max's, she begins the act of cradling the remaining family members.

Very little of what the characters say is weighty. An opening discussion in which Max interrogates Lenny on the whereabouts of a pair of scissors is typical of the topics raised and bruited. It's the mood in which the discussions are held that counts; one of Pinter's themes is omnipresent rancor. Max and his boys are given to blasting their demands and responses at the slightest provocation. Failure to light someone's cigarette is cause for a tantrum. And when nothing much is talked about, those world-famous "Pinter pauses" are as filled with possibility as the words and phrases they separate.

Composing lines for these mysterious but recognizable characters, Pinter is apparently content to follow his own logic, unconcerned about leaving much open to interpretation. Or perhaps that's his gift, part of the collaborative endeavor that playwriting ultimately is: "I'll write what is believable to me," he may be thinking, "and let them mount what is satisfying to them." So whether he condones it or not, all sorts of interpretations can be applied to The Homecoming. Pinter throws out the questions without lingering to hear what answers are provided. Is the play autobiographical, an oblique take on the author's marriage to Vivien Merchant, who originated the role of Ruth? Is it an allegory of England today and the failure of monarchy? Is it simply a particularly powerful family drama? Is it Pinter's view of woman's innate superiority to man? Who knows? If Pinter does, he's not saying.

What is obvious is that, in looking at the family from his chilly perspective, Pinter has produced a powerful piece of theater. The moment in the second act when Max, realizing he's been replaced by Ruth, lets out a howl (which could also represent belated grief for his dead wife, Jessie) has all the impact of Lear carrying on the lifeless Cordelia. The sense that something seismic has occurred while people have done little more than move from one chair to another is practically overwhelming.

It might be argued that Pinter has been copied so often, he now seems a copy of himself; and that, consequently, The Homecoming hasn't the potential to be as shattering as it was when first unveiled. But by the end of the second act--when the men have failed to follow through on their ominous behavior, allowing Ruth the opportunity to take questionable control--the play still devastates. Though Ruth triumphs, there's the hint of defeat for all concerned. The air is thick with genuine tragedy.

Ian Holm and Jason O'Mara in The Homecoming
(Photo: Stephanie Berger)
Congratulations are due to director Robin Lefevre and his company, all of whom seem to understand Pinter's intentions implicitly. What they intuited from their reading of the script is that Pinter requires simple respect for the lines as well as the frequently called-for pauses. Lefevre and the cast may have employed bushelfuls of director's and actor's tricks but if so, they were the subtlest ones in the thespian's handbook. Ian Holm as put-on pater Max (he played Lenny in the original production to Paul Rogers' magnificent Max) got to give his pipes the toughest work-out and unfurled his usual superb performance; he managed to use a prop cane as if it were a frighteningly attenuated index finger. Lia Williams, who has the kind of legs that looked great as she slid them one over the other, made the transition from startled observer to thoughtful guest to queen bee so gradually that it seemed not to be happening at all. And Messrs. Hart, Kavanagh, O'Mara and Dunning--each walking a tightrope of complex impulses--also proved themselves immaculate Pinterians. (Note to novice thespians: This production of The Homecoming doubled as a great lesson in how to use, but never abuse, the voice on stage.)
Additional encomia should be tossed at set designer Eileen Diss and lighting designer Mick Hughes. Pinter is notorious for giving his collaborators little to go on. For The Homecoming he notes only that the place is "the living room of an old house in North London" and the time is "an evening in summer." Rising to the challenge, Diss and Hughes, along with costume designer Dany Everett, also showed themselves to be cunning Pinterians. Diss' looming, gloomy edifice with its commodious living-room, dark staircase, and dim upper floor gave Hughes no end of opportunities to cast enveloping shadows that looked like groping arms or to throw down shards of light that held the terror of knife blades. This Homecoming was stunning in just about every definition of that word.

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