As the English actor-manager Donald Wolfit was on his deathbed, the last words he supposedly gasped were: “Dying is easy, comedy is hard.” But perhaps Wolfit — for whom Harold Pinter appeared in eight productions — meant to say was: “Dying is easy, Pinter is hard.” It’s an indisputable theater truth that director Daniel Sullivan has probably learned while preparing his picturesque if not properly Pinteresque revival of The Homecoming, the 1967 Tony-winning play that has settled uneasily into the Cort.
In The Homecoming, smug philosophy professor Teddy (James Frain) brings his dissatisfied wife, Ruth (Eve Best), home to meet the folks — nine years after their marriage and their emigration to America. The tetchy group includes cane-waving father Max (Ian McShane), high-class pimp brother Lenny (Raul Esparza), boxing hopeful brother Joey (Gareth Saxe), and chauffeur uncle Sam (Michael McKean). The combustible situation is that the run-down household hasn’t enjoyed a woman’s touch in some time, as is indicated by Eugene Lee’s set with its gaping hole over one wide doorway and jumble-sale chairs on which the characters perch.
Over the following days, Ruth’s presence has a disorienting effect on the occupants of the North London home and on her own apparently shaky marriage. Her allure especially radiates during a resonantly provocative second-act speech in which — while wearing a filmy frock costumer Jess Goldstein has found — she says: “Look at me. I…move my leg. That’s all it is. But I…wear…underwear…which moves with me…it…captures your attention.” When she says that, she’s not just whistling “Rule, Britannia.”
Anyone who’s followed Pinter’s career knows that to get the effects he wants, he deliberately inserts extremely specific stage directions into his manuscripts. Ellipses as well as the words “pause,” “slight pause” and “silence” sit on the page like insistent punctuation, which are just as important to the meaning of his works as the generally economical speeches. Peter Hall, who directed this play’s first production, reports in his published diaries that Pinter once said to him, “because The Homecoming and Old Times were about sex, the pauses therefore reverberated with half meanings and suggested meanings.”
Pinter’s high-mannerist plays are anything but obvious while suggesting many repressed things about human relationships. The interplay of testosterone and estrogen is just one of them. Power, repressed fury, potential and manifest menace are other strains in which Pinter diabolically dabbles while rarely being explicit. Therefore, the obligation of directors tackling Pinter is to find their own meanings in the lines, gestures, and multitudinous pauses — or at least to intimate suggestive meaning. For example, in The Homecoming, when Max enters wielding a stick, there must be the sense that at any second whatever damaging forces are rumbling beneath a deceptively still surface will erupt. While laughing at Pinter’s many humorous lines and situations, the audience needs to be in suspenseful discomfort.
That requisite state of anxiety simply doesn’t prevail under Sullivan’s hand. Even though he’s working with a cast of intelligent and emotive actors, the audience is too often allowed to relax. There are moments when sexual and sinister undercurrents tremble and threaten, such as the aforementioned sequence when Best — whose long face resembles pale porcelain – -talks about how she moves her legs and then demonstrates. When McShane swings his cane as if it’s a metronome gone haywire, a scary thrill whips the air; but the terror he exuded consistently in HBO’s Deadwood is diluted here. Of the rest of the cast, Esparza’s chillingly contained delivery as the knows-more-than-he’s-saying Lenny also has its intermittent effect, and Saxe’s uncertain Joey almost always works. Frain has a hold on some of Teddy’s self-satisfaction but misses the stuffiness of a tenured pedant. The closest-to-perfect performance is given by McKean as the well-meaning, baffled Sam.
Incidentally, the actors — with Liz Smith as dialect coach — speak in an array of English accents. Evidently, the idea is to evoke the various social strata to which they’ve progressed rather than the shared stratum into which they were born. But like much else on stage, the concept ends up contributing to a less-than-perfect production.