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A CurtainUp Review
The Homecoming

With Additional Thoughts by Elyse Sommer
Give me the glass — Lenny
If you take the glass, I'll take you— Eve>
The Homecoming
Eve Best in The Homecoming
(Photo: Scott Landis )
It shouldn't take forty years to figure out what a play is about unless it is by Harold Pinter. However, a superb cast, under the direction of Daniel Sullivan, has made the task a lot easier in this excellent production in celebration of the play's 40th anniversary.

Generally acknowledged as the patron saint of the dramatic or pregnant pause, Pinter is more generously admired for his ability to hold in abeyance the latent mysteries within his texts that include such famously puzzling plays as The Birthday Party, The Caretaker, No Man's Land, and Betrayal. Able to use what is left unspoken or at least half-spoken and giving it the dramatic hook it deserves is a formidable achievement. Pinter uses that gift with fastidious skill in this work.

Forty years has not dimmed the menacing black humor, the chilling cliff-hanging twists, and the unpredictable characters embedded in The Homecoming. More apparent than ever is the play's need for an ensemble effort, something that director Sullivan has managed to instill despite the company's cultural mix. The brisk pace that he takes can hardly be said to be calibrated in deference to Peter Hall's original more measured staging for the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1968. A quickened pace is fine, although it works better in Act I when the unknown and the unexpected propel the action. If Act II is a bit of a letdown, it is because the play becomes more aggressively outrageous, if not absurd, as it relies on the manifestation of the psycho-sexual projections of the characters rather than any construct of reality.

And how much fun it is to watch these fine actors portray the multiple layers of their existence. Ian McShane, no stranger to Pinter having played Mick in the television production of The Caretaker, is a hoot as Max, the domineering and terrorizing patriarch who bullies his three sons into submissiveness. Best known for his award-winning performance as Al Sweearengen in HBO's series Deadwood, McShane bulldozes his way through the old family home, brandishing a cane as lethal as any sword.

A cumulative tension, most of it sexual, mounts as the youngest and middle sons — Joey (Gareth Saxe) a dim-witted boxer and Lenny (Raul Esparza), an arrogant pimp— become intrigued and ultimately mesmerized by the covert sexuality of the older brother's wife Ruth (Eve Best). Esparza, an actor of exceptional talent and versatility, who gave the definitive performance of Bobby last season in Company, is right at home in Pinterland. He injects his scenes with Best's Ruth with the kind of deliberately devilish baiting that is both exciting and unnerving.

Teddy (James Frain), the oldest son, a Ph.D who has brought his wife to visit the family, is faced with the possibility that she may be deliberately insinuating herself into the family's favor. But that is speculative, typical of the way the play hints at many motives and many reasons for a lot of very peculiar but also vastly entertaining behavior.

Best, who won just about every award there was last season for her performance as Josie, in A Moon for the Misbegotten (review), probably has the play's toughest role as she goes from a point of veiled indifference to various states of complicity, a journey made with the prescribed minimum of physical action. The harrowing edge to her portrayal is riveting.

McKean gives a fine performance as Max's gentle brother Sam, a chauffeur by profession who harbors family secrets. Saxe is also fascinating to watch as the pathetic Joey, whose lust proves as listless as his boxing career.

The scene in which the family has a ritualistic cigar light-up is marvelously funny and also commendable for not affecting the air in the theater. Eugene Lee's setting did what was expected of it to suggest a home without a woman's touch, including the large gape in the plaster board wall that the men have no intention of ever fixing. This determinedly foggy but entertaining play never ceases to arouse speculation to its meaning: Women as whores in the eyes of men? Men as the ways and means to power and possession in the eyes of women? But whatever it is, a good time is sure to be had by all.

While Harold Pinter is hardly considered a comic playwright, Simon is absolutely right in saying that a good time will be had by all who see this revival of The Homecoming, whether for the first time or to re-experience its brilliant mix of humor and chillingly sexual and familial power play. To his praises for the cast, Director Daniel Sullivan and his designers, I can only add my own bravo, bravo, bravo! Besides the quitessentially Pinteresque single room setting by Eugene Lee to support the puzzling and disturbing elements threatening the status quo, there's also John Gromada's sound to add to the aura of menace that overarches even the humorous moments.

If you go with friends, half the fun will be in the post-play discussions about just what triggered the dysfunction in this household of men living together but far from happily and lovingly so —or just what makes the lone woman in the play tick. Actually, I liked the ambuigity and surreal turn the second act takes so did not feel l any sense of letdown. After all, Pinter himself said in a 1971 interview that he couldn't sum up any of his plays and that he could describe none of them, except to say "That is what happened. That is what they said. That is what they did." And as fellow playwright David Hare said about Pinter's style: ". . . over his work and over his person hovers a sort of leonine, predatory spirit which is all the more powerful for being held under in a rigid discipline of form, or in a black suit. The essence of his singular appeal is that you sit down to every play he writes in certain expectation of the unexpected. In sum, this tribute from one writer to another — you never know what the hell's coming next."

It was interesting to see The Homecoming just a day after catching another revival of dysfunctional family play, Christopher Marlowe's Edward the Second (review ). While Marlowe wrote fine blank verse, he did not rely on words alone but made generous use of knives, guns and hot pokers to settle disagreements. So Rick Sordelet who's credited as fight director in both these plays, has his work cut out for him in Edward but less so in The Homecoming for the only weapons used here, as in any Pinter play, are words. Martin Eslin in The People Wound best sums up the power of those words which have added the term Pinteresque to our lexicon: "Every syllable, every inflection, the succession of long and short sounds, words and sentences, is calculated to nicety. And precisely the repetitiousness, the discontinuity, the circularity of ordinary vernacular speech are here used as formal elements with which the poet can compose his linguistic ballet."

Since Simon has summed up the reasons why The Homecoming is yet another welcome addition to a season dominated by interesting straight plays, I'll just some additional background information.

I suppose every Pinter fan has a favorite, but The Homecoming is widely considered to be his best and, along with Betrayal, his most popular. While it was written early on in his career, he'd already turned out a dozen others, including The Birthday Party and The Dumb Waiter in 1957 and The Caretaker, 1959. The Pinter canon now includes 29 plays, not counting a variety of sketches and radio works. Since his cross-over to film in 1963 he has chalked up credits for over twenty screenplays. He has also been quite active politically, and a number of his plays reflect these concerns, particularly in the human rights area and in 2005 his career was capped with a Nobel Prize for Literature.

While writing and directing are primary in the Pinter scheme of things, Pinter continues to act in the occasional film (Uncle Benny in The Tailor of Panama (2001), Vivian Bearing's father in Wit (2001) and as Sir Thomas Betram in Mansfield Park (1999).

Peter Hall's British production of The Homecoming was re-staged at the Music Box Theatre where it ran for 324 performances . A 1991 revival at the Roundabout, was directed by Gordon Edelstein and played 49 performances.

For a more complete biography of Pinter and links to other of his plays we've reviewed (including two revivals of The Homecoming), see our Harold Pinter Backgrounder.

The Homecoming
By Harold Pinter
Directed by Daniel Sullivan

Cast: Ian McShane (Max), Raul Esparza (Lenny), Eve Best (Ruth), Michael McKean (Sam), James Frain (Teddy), Gareth Saxe (Joey)
Set Design: Eugene Lee
Costume Design by Jess Goldstein
Lighting Design: Kenneth Posner
Sound Design: John Gromada
Running Time: 2 hours 5 minutes including intermission
The Cort Theater, 138 West 48th Street 212/239-6200
From 11/16/07; opening 12/16/07; closing 4/13/08
Tue at 7pm; Wed - Sat at 8pm; Wed & Sat at 2pm; Sun at 3pm
Tickets: $26.50 - $98.50
Seen By Simon Saltzman 6/15/07; by Elyse Sommer 6/16/07


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