Volume 18 • Issue 32 | December 23 - 30, 2005

Theater

THE ROOM and CELEBRATION
By Harold Pinter
Directed by Neil Pepe
Through January 21
Atlantic Theater
336 West 20th Street
212-239-6200

One stage, two very different Pinters

Photo by Monique Carboni
Kate Blumberg, Carolyn McCormick, Thomas Jay Ryan, Phillip Goodwin, Betsy Aidem, Patrick Breen, Brennan Brown, Christa Scott-Reed in “Celebration,” one-half of the Atlantic Theater Company’s 20th Anniversary season double-bill production of the Harold Pinter play and “The Room,” directed by Neil Pepe. Below, Peter Maloney, Thomas Jay Ryan and Mary Beth Peil in “The Room,” where it all began for Nobel Prize-winner Pinter.

By JERRY TALLMER

I will show you fear in a handful of dust.
— T.S. Eliot, The Waste Land, 1922

In a handful of dust, or an old rocking chair.

Rose and Bert Hudd are at home in their room on an upper floor of a large house somewhere in London. Well, England. He sits at a table reading a magazine, saying nothing, nothing, nothing. She chatters away, serves him food and tea, chatters, chatters, sits in the rocking chair, gets up. There is a knock on the door.

Enter Mr. Kidd, the landlord. Maybe the landlord. A brusk yet talkative type. Says he’s been looking at the pipes. Looks around the room. Says: “Eh, have I seen that before?”

ROSE; What?
MR. KIDD: That chair.
ROSE: I don’t know. Have you?
MR. KIDD: I seem to have some remembrance.
ROSE: It’s just an old rocking chair.
MR. KIDD: Was it here when you came?
ROSE: No, I brought it myself.
MR. KIDD: I could swear blind I’ve seen that before.
ROSE: Perhaps you have.
MR. KIDD: What?
ROSE: I say, perhaps you have.
MR. KIDD: Yes, maybe I have.

If by now you are not feeling very uneasy, you will as soon as silent Bert gets up (silently), puts on his cap and scarf (silently), and goes out in the night (silently) to drive his van who knows where or why. Or when two other people turn up at the door, looking for a vacant room that may or may not be this room. Or when yet another stranger, a blind Negro, canes his way into the room with a message for Rose that she does not want to hear. Notice the word “blind” that Mr. Kidd has inconsequentially uttered just above. You might notice, also that the word “murder,” in reference to the weather — the bitter cold — has been used once in passing by Rose and once by one of the intruders.

So it goes in Harold Pinter’s “The Room,” one of his first plays to see an audience, if not indeed the very first (Bristol University, 1957; Hampstead Theatre Club, 1960; Royal Court, 1960, with Vivien Merchant [his then wife] and Michael Caine).

It is the play that with “The Birthday Party” and “The Dumb Waiter” and one or two others defined Pinterism for us, and all the foreboding that goes with it. Now it is on a Pinter double-bill at the Atlantic Theater on West 20th Street with a far more recent work, “Celebration,” a quite different cup of tea.

In fact, though ”Celebration” (2000) is set in a fancy restaurant in London — the most expensive restaurant in London, as one of the characters, a “strategic consultant” gangster type, keeps exclaiming — the only tea in these two works is the cup Rose serves to husband Bert in “The Room.” He likes his weak, she likes hers strong.

“Celebration” is an altogether weird animal as plays go. Partly it is — or seems to me — Pinter getting back at all the quick-money, big-money elites, snobs, yobs, and bullies (and their women) he came up against, was put down by, in his whole life. Think Donald Trump. If a Brit. And partly it is a bizarre, anarchic, looney-tunes attack on cultural snobbism of an equal and opposite sort.

This counterattack is placed in the mouth of an anonymous waiter in the elite restaurant who, interrupting the sex talk and other talk of the diners, suddenly launches into paeans and perorations about “my grandfather who knew T.S. Eliot quite well … knew them all in fact, Ezra Pound, W.H. Auden, C. Day Lewis, Louis MacNeice, Stephen Spender, George Barker, Dylan Thomas … D.H. Lawrence, Joseph Conrad, Ford Maddox Ford, W.B. Yeats, Aldous Huxley, Virginia Woolf, and Thomas Hardy … ”

And not just the whole spectrum of 20th-century English-lit greats, but of old Hollywood (“Al Capone and Victor Mature for example. They were both Irish. Then there was John Dillinger the celebrated gangster and Gary Cooper the celebrated film star. They were Jewish”). And not just that, but his grandfather also hobnobbed with such as Archduke Franz-Joseph of Austro-Hungary, and Benito Mussolini, and, yes, Winston Churchill …

The only trouble with this hilarious digressive roster is that at the Atlantic, in the production directed by Neil Pepe, the actor playing the waiter, David Pittu, tends to swallow his words so that they cannot be as well followed, on the instant, as they deserve to be.

All others in the cast do very well in pushing the caricatures that Pinter puts upon them, in particular Patrick Breen in black-shirted, pink-necktied bad-good-taste as Lambert the “strategic consultant,” Brennan Brown as a correspondingly obnoxious stockbroker at an adjacent table, Kate Blumberg as that gentleman’s nervy chippie, and Philip Goodwin as the ultra-diplomatic restaurateur who has to keep all these customers happy, even the women who make unwanted passes at him.

“The Room,” a harder play (to think about), is easier to do right by, I reckon, and in any event Mary Beth Peil as Rose, Thomas Jay Ryan as husband Bert, Peter Maloney (especially) as Mr. Kidd, Kate Blumberg and David Pittu as two crass intruders, and — I am most pleased to say, because he and I go back a bit — Earle Hyman as the blind man at this short drama’s shocking denouement, convey Pinterism in its fullest, earliest essence, near-British or sub-British accents and all.


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