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A CurtainUp Review
The Caretaker

I went into a room and saw one person standing up and one person sitting down, and a few weeks later I wrote 'The Room.' I went into another room and saw two people sitting down and a few years later I wrote 'The Birthday Party.' I looked through a door into a third room and saw two people standing up and I wrote 'The Caretaker'
---Harold Pinter's tongue-in-cheek explanation for how he wrote The Caretaker. According to our London critic Lizzie Loveridge, the play was born when he and his wife, Vivienne Merchant, were living in two rooms in Chiswick in a house also occupied by a man with a history of mental illness who brought a homeless man to live with him. The rest is of course the result of Pinter's imagination.
Kyle MacLachlan as Aston, Aidan Gillen as Mick, Patrick Stewart as Davies (Photo: Joan Marcus)
Critics and theater scholars have not been content to settle for Harold Pinter's own above quoted explanation for how his first big hit, The Caretaker (1960), evolved. Interpretations of its pauses and symbols and kinship to Beckett and how it influenced other playwrights like Mamet and Shepard, are almost as numerous as its productions. The kinship to Beckett is perhaps most accurately captured by early promotional copy that added a tag of "a comedy of menace" to the title. These elements of comedy and menace are dominant in both Waiting For Godot and The Caretaker (as well as other works by both writers).

So be it then if comedy has the upper hand in the Roundabout Theatre's current revival starring Patrick Stewart as Davies, Aidan Gillen as Mick and Kyle MacLachlan as Aston (twenty years after its 1982 production which featured F. Murray Abraham, Daniel Gerroll and Anthony Heald and forty-two years after the play's Broadway premiere with Donald Pleasance, Alan Bates and Robert Shaw). So be it also that The Caretaker's stage and screen offspring have dulled its postmodernist edginess as a beginning-middle-end tradition breaker with unreliably ambiguous characters, and that Stewart's Davies is more predictably comic loser than menacing outsider. This power struggle in which no one is a caretaker of anything or anyone takes its menacing relevancy from the ever escalating visibility of disoriented, homeless people living in cardboard houses on the streets of our major cities.

The plot remains unchanged: Davies, an aging bum is rescued from a fight and given temporary shelter by Aston, a mild-mannered, emotionally shaky eccentric. Though determined to become a steady boarder rather than an overnight guest, Davies sneers at everything Aston offers -- from the dusty bed, to the shoes he badly needs -- and, in what can be seen as a desperate man's last ditch effort at self esteem, disparages the minority residents next door. Aston's younger brother Mick at first attacks the new roommate, then befriends him and, like his brother, offers him a job as the building caretaker which encourages the wily outsider to play up to each and eventually find himself once again on the road to nowhere.

The fairly uneventful plot unfolds with all the famous Pinteresque pauses also in place, beginning with an almost excruciatingly endless opening. And Patrick Stewart has succeeded in the aim expressed in an interview with New York Time culture critic Mel Gussow -- to uncover all of the play's humor while investing the crafty survivor with that sense of reaching the ultimate snapping point. Costume designer Jane Greenwood has done much to help him achieve tramp perfect authenticity. To push him to that critical snapping point, Kyle MacLachlan and Aidan Gillen do good work as the pipe-dreaming brothers. The swaggering, volatile Mick's Donald Trump-like ambitions to fix up the shabby tenement they call home is as unrealistic as slow-moving former mental patient Aston's fixation on building himself a work shed; and, while there isn't a sign of sibling feeling at any time, in the end some unspoken blood tie makes them both destroy Davies' own pipe dream of finding a permanent nest.

Stewart's digging for humor often elicits not just chuckles, but loud laughter. He's hilarious when he tries on the much needed new pair of shoes Aston offers him and and even funnier when he finally accepts another pair but balks at the idea of brown laces with black shoes. However, the evening's comic highlight is a three-way vaudevillian dance, expertly choreographed by director David Jones, when the three characters joust for possession of what is purportedly a leather bag belonging to Davies.

Thanks to John Lee Beatty's ability to apply his well-known gifts for creating detailed upscale interiors to the garbage-dump decor of life's underbelly, the stage is strewn with the symbols of these men's failure to connect to life or each other alluded to in the script: piles of old papers, a rolled-up carpet, a single wooden chair, a clothes horse, a vacuum cleaner and other disparate detritus that reflects the isolation and meaninglessness of its occupants. Beatty has not overlooked the two most symbolic props: a bucket that's suspended from the ceiling, a menacing potential destroyer of any semblance of comfort and serenity, and the junk shop Buddha that's just waiting to get smashed. Peter Kaczorowski lighting and Scott Lehrer's incidental music add to the production's visual strengths.

Considering the fact that The Caretaker, at almost half a century of age has reached classic status, a revival like this would benefit from a practice not unusual for three act, two intermission plays -- finding a single breaking point. As it is, two hours and fifty minutes (with the two intermissions) directed at a somewhat too moderate tempo, puts something of a strain on even the most devoted visitor to Pinterland.

For a review of the most recent London revival of The Caretaker go here.
For our Harold Pinter backgrounder with links to other reviews of his plays go here.

The Caretaker
Written by Harold Pinter
Directed by David Jones
Cast: Patrick Stewart as Davies, Kyle MacLachlan as Aston and Aidan Gillen as Mick
Set Design: John Lee Beatty
Costume Design:Jane Greenwood
Lighting Design: Peter Kaczorowski
Sound Design: Scott Lehrer
Running time: Approx. 2 and 50 minutes, includes 2 intermissions
American Airlines Theatre, 227 W. 42nd St 212/719/1300
10/24/03 to 1/04/04; opening 11/09/03.
Wed - Sat at 8pm; Wed, Sat, Sun at 2pm except Dec 2 - 6, 9 - 12 at 7pm..
Ticket prices range from $41.25 - $66.25.
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on November 11 press performance

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