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Theater review: 'The Caretaker' at the Curran Theatre

April 6, 2012 |  3:00 pm

The caretaker1

 Clarity is not commonly thought to be one of Harold Pinter’s signature virtues. But when his work is done right — and the penetrating British import production of “The Caretaker” starring two-time Tony winner Jonathan Pryce at San Francisco's Curran Theatre is nearly flawless — there’s a dreamlike lucidity that will have you seeing deep into the underground pathways of human nature.

When Pinter burst onto the British playwriting scene in the late 1950s, his enigmatic style proved exasperating to many of the day’s leading critics, who could tolerate mystery only if it came with an intelligible explanation, some moral or message they could comfortingly relay to their readers. Not given one, they grew frustrated by this cocky upstart whose characters spoke, as one impatient reviewer put it, in “non-sequiturs, half-gibberish and lunatic ravings.”

“The Caretaker,” which premiered in 1960, turned out to be Pinter’s breakthrough play, the work that inspired a new receptiveness to his dramatic tactics. Characters behave in ways that are every bit as opaque as the menacing festivities of his earlier play “The Birthday Party” (the flop that became a classic). But the psychology of “The Caretaker,” even when elusive, is too real to be dismissed as flamboyant gimmickry.

Caretaker 2Pinter was ripening but, equally important, the shock of the new was subsiding. Of course the verbal brilliance was always impossible to deny. A half-century later, his sly, slithering dialogue, shuffling humorous banalities with harrowing silences, has retained its bracing originality.

How wonderful to hear the ranting arias of the old tramp Davies — that thrift store King Lear — delivered by Pryce, an actor who knows how to sing not only in musicals (“Miss Saigon” among them) but also in Shakespearean tragedy and dark contemporary comedy. Here, the character’s staccato music is given a Welsh tone, a suggestion in the text that Pryce, a Wales native, artfully layers into his palimpsest-like performance.

This Theatre Royal Bath / Liverpool Everyman and Playhouse production, which runs through April 22 in San Francisco before continuing on a limited U.S. tour that includes an extended run at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, does the remarkable service of defogging Pinter’s drama without simplifying it. Christopher Morahan’s clear-eyed direction allows the audience to get a solid grasp of the stage picture — no small feat for a drama in which basic facts about the characters’ backgrounds (forget about motivations!) are up for grabs.

The action is realistically situated in the cluttered room occupied by Aston (Alan Cox), who invites Davies, a racist bum with a manipulative streak, to live with him after rescuing him from a workplace brawl. Swooping in and out of this scene is Mick (Alex Hassell), Aston’s younger brother and landlord, a figure who’s never more threatening than when he’s straining to be polite to this scheming stranger. 

The scenic design by Eileen Diss offers a gray tableau chock-full of the junky bric-a-brac that’s compulsively collected by Aston, who it’s revealed was treated against his will at a mental hospital and has never fully recovered. The setting is grim yet sheltering — a safe haven for broken-down adults, with a dripping ceiling and constant drafts, that is open to metaphorical interpretation (especially when Colin Grenfell’s lighting effects are in play) but doesn’t insist on it.

The needless mystification that spoils so many Pinter revivals — the wrapping of a puzzle in an enigma — is thankfully avoided. The play is allowed to speak for itself, and the result is that the work, although slightly marred by the production’s few slips into staginess, is clearly heard.

Which isn’t to say that its multiple riddles are solved. Your guess about Davies’ history is as good as mine, though Pryce’s jutting tongue and wicked volatility suggest that Aston isn’t the only who has spent time in a mental ward. And you might get whiplash from the way Mick switches back and forth between courtesy and hostility, one minute sadistically interrogating Davies, the next making him the caretaker of the premises. Hassell, stomping around in jeans and a black leather jacket, doesn’t provide a definitive explanation, but his frenetic energy is that of a man caught in two roles, Oedipal revenger and brother’s keeper.

Pryce doesn’t have the Falstaffian stature of Michael Gambon, whose portrayal of Davies (which I caught in London some years back) had more sinister swagger. The violence of Pryce’s Davies is more defensive than offensive — there’s something pathetic about the way he keeps waving that little knife of his, a boy’s weapon in an old man’s shaky hands, as he fights to maintain his place as the haughty, irascible freeloader.

Cox hauntingly delivers Aston’s monologue recounting the electric shock treatment that slowed his mind and crushed his spirit. But this traumatic past doesn’t require words — it’s evident in the reluctant gait and withdrawn body language Cox adopts for his character.

Hassell provides just the right manic spin to Mick’s speech about “fixing this place into a penthouse.” It’s a classic Pinter riff, complete with glossy magazine images of “armchairs in oatmeal tweed,” that’s meant to leave Davies rattled and the audience exhilarated. Hassell succeeds on both counts.

At the heart of “The Caretaker,” as with nearly all of Pinter’s plays, is a territorial struggle, a battle for dominion fought out in a lowly room. Refuge is the existential goal. If that sounds easy, bear in mind it involves keeping not just yourself in but dangerous others out. 


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-- Charles McNulty, reporting from San Francisco\charlesmcnulty

Photos: Upper: Jonathan Pryce and Alan Cox. Lower: Pryce and Alex Hassell. Credit: Helen Warner