The proclivities of a bumpy journey home
By Jerry Tallmer
Larry Keith told the waiter he’d like to start with a bowl of pea soup. Then he looked across at the press (this press) and said: “There’s a line in the play that goes … that goes … oh God, and it’s my line too…” He riffled through his script of “Home” in which all his own lines, as Harry, were highlighted in orange. “Here it is. ‘Quite frequently one can judge people entirely by their behavior.’ Well,” said actor Keith, “one can always judge a coffee shop by its pea soup.”
David Storey’s “Home” starts out with two men, Harry and Jack, and then two women, Kathleen and Marjorie, having conversations of agonizing periphrasis, if that’s the word.
Circumlocution, if you like. Or what my college comrade James Lawlor Farley would have said was “like trying to pick up water with your fingers.”
That line, Larry, about judging people entirely by their behavior, is like saying black is black. Isn’t it?
“Sure. These two guys are talking in a convoluted language, an imagery, all their own. Very dense, very layered with ambiguities. Harry is oblique and obtuse in his answers. Whereas the women are very blunt.” And Alfred, a brainless strong man (Ron McClary), is off on a world of his own. To Keith, “Home” is a “phenomenal” piece of work.
Here’s one touch of it:
Jack (actor Simon Jones) has gone off with Marjorie (Cynthia Harris), so Harry and Kathleen (Cynthia Darlow) are now having a walk and talk of their own.
KATHLEEN: All that soot, cuts it [the sunlight] down. ’Stead of browning you turns you black.
KATHLEEEN: All over.
HARRY: An industrial nation.
KATHLEEN; Gawd …
HARRY: Can’t have the benefit of both. Nature as well as er … The one is incurred at the expense of the other.
KATHLEEN: Your friend come in for following little girls?
KATHLEEN: Go on. You can tell me. Cross me heart and hope to die.
HARRY: Well … that’s …
KATHLEEN: Well, then.
HARRY: I believe there were … er … certain proclivities, shall we say?
KATHLEEN: Proclivities? What’s them?
It is, in other words bland, banal, meandering words a very dark play in a shorthand leading … where?
The playgoer “has to take that journey without knowing the destination,” says Harry no, Larry Keith.
Does an actor have to understand the play he’s in, know that destination, the member of the press wondered, thinking of the Bert Lahr the clowning Estragon of Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot” on Broadway who claimed not to understand one word of that journey.
“I think you do,” said Keith, a goodly share of whose dialogue in those orange-highlighted lines runs to “Oh, yes,” “Ah, yes,” “Oh, dear, yes,” “Oh, no,” “No, no,” “Really,” “Very,” and so on and so forth in dozens of shadings and stresses. “It underlies the choices you make, in this or any play. I don’t want to be trite about it, but it’s like peeling the onion, yes? One layer after another.”
David Storey, who is now 73 and is perhaps best known in this country for “The Changing Room” (naked British soccer players between halves) and the screenplay of “This Sporting Life,” wrote “Home” back when he was in his 30s. It had a huge success in London with a cast headed by John Gielgud as Harry, Ralph Richardson as Jack, under the direction of Lindsay Anderson, and it came to Broadway in November 1970 with the same two stars.
“I saw that production,” said Keith. “They were extraordinary, particularly Richardson. The effect was stunning. I was totally absorbed, deeply moved.”
He has, in fact, in preparation for the TACT (The Actors Company Theatre) mounting of “Home” that started performances this past weekend under Scott Alan Evans’s direction at the Samuel Beckett Theatre on 42nd Street, watched a video of that 1970 original.
Not many actors would have done that. For Keith, an actor who’s been in four shows in four different theaters this year, it was a simple matter of time. “It’s a difficult play. Let’s see what they did.”
It was also Larry Keith, one of the dozen or so founding members of TACT, who suggested that that company do a reading of “Home” for an invited audience a couple of years ago. They not only did it, they got a review most unusual for a book-in-hand reading in The New York Times.
“A glowing review,” said Keith now. “So we thought, huh, let’s see if we can take it further.”
TACT came into being 13 years ago, in Keith’s words, “to do plays that honor language, on contemporary themes, and are not likely to be done commercially. Also, as actors, why should we sit around waiting for someone to do some such play and maybe hire us? Writers and painters don’t have to wait for permission, but an actor has to be hired.”
TACT has done many readings of many plays “in cinematic style, facing out to the audience rather than facing one another” but this is only the group’s third full production. The other two were a musical about the Triangle Shirtwaist fire and Noel Coward’s “Long Island Sound.”
It was another work by Noel Coward Broadway’s 1964 “High Spirits,” a musicalization of his “Blithe Spirit” that brought young Brooklyn-born Larry Keith, son of “the only Jewish construction-crane operator in captivity” face to face with the British Cockney playwright-composer-lyricist-performer he thinks of as “a giant.”
“I was nobody. He was Noel Coward. He treated me strictly as a professional, and with kindness. I received Christmas cards from him until he died.”
Noel Coward must have appreciated the following exchange, in “Home,” between Jack and Harry, as they stroll the greensward:
JACK: I remember I once owned a little boat.
JACK: For fishing. Nothing very grand.
HARRY: A fishing man.
JACK: Not really. More an occasional pursuit …
HARRY; Still. A boat is more interesting.
JACK: Oh, yes. A sort of tradition, really.
HARRY: In the family.
JACK: No, no. More in the … island, you know.
HARRY: Ah, yes.
JACK: Sir Walter Raleigh.
HARRY: There was a fine man … poet.
JACK: Lost his head, you know.
Wooooosht! There goes the British Empire, in a pea-soup fog of cryptic, meandering verbiage. Meandering but, at the end of the journey the bottom of the bowl of Larry Keith’s pea soup clear as a bell.
HOME. By David Storey. Directed by Scott Alan Evans. Presented by The Actors Company Theatre (TACT), December 2-23, at the Samuel Beckett Theatre, 410 West 42nd Street. (212) 279-4200.