By JERRY TALLMER
At the top of Act I in the script of Harold Pinter’s “The Homecoming” there is this stage direction following the entrance of Max, the parent and tyrant of a disjointed household of men in North London: “He wears an old cardigan and a cap, and carries a stick.”
And from that instruction, the forceful and fecund actor Ian McShane surely with the connivance of director Daniel Sullivan has built an entire swaggering, cap-wearing, cane-waving, cane-thrusting, cane-slashing character of bluff and brag and bullshit to place this new look at Pinter’s 1965 breakthrough full-length drama right up there alongside its earlier stagings.
With a difference.
This is Pinter With Laughs.
Menace, yes, menace of course, menace is Harold Pinter’s middle name, but where my memory of the original (1967) Broadway production of “The Homecoming” with its original (and brilliant) British cast is of amoral darkness unmitigated, this one serves up that darkness through a flickering strobe, or sieve, of stoic, aggressive British music hall humor.
Amorality? “Mind you,” Max in an elegiac moment intones of the wife and mother who long since went to her reward, “she taught these boys everything they know. She taught them all the morality they know.” (Two minutes later he will be referring to his offspring and their mother as “three bastard sons, a slutbitch of a wife … ” and worse, far worse.).
The three sons are:
Joey, a slow-witted would-be boxer and two-bit Don Juan who works “in demolition” (well played by the tall, ungainly, too-skinny Gareth Saxe); Lenny, a garrulous, needling snake of evil in human guise indeed, I hazard, the serpent of Eden (endlessly subtle Raul Esparza); and Teddy, the eldest, who weirdly enough has become a Professor of Philosophy at an unnamed American university (and is portrayed passively, mannequin-like by James Frain).
It is this Teddy who, in mid-play, in the middle of the night, suddenly reappears in London and in this house of his boyhood, accompanied by an enigmatic, leg-displaying young woman named Ruth (Eve Best), who turns out to be the wife and mother of his, Teddy’s, three small children, left there, back in the States, while Teddy and Ruth have been on second honeymoon in Venice, Italy.
Rounding out the London household is Sam (Michael McKean, whose face kept reminding me of Ralph Richardson), old Max’s brother, a limousine driver who takes pride in his job, his vehicle, his own rectitude, and his diligence in conveying people of means to and from London Airport. But to ever cantankerous cane-smacking Max, brother Sam is merely “you wet wick” who’s no doubt been “banging away with your lady customers, have you?” in the back seat of that conveyance. And then the Max who is McShane delivers the one line that really made me laugh out loud:
“What about the armrest? Was it up or down?”
By now, in contrast, Max’s opinion of his daughter-in-law has veered 180 degrees from “whore … slopbucket … bedpan” to “you’re a charming woman.” And from there it is only a hop, skip and jump to Lenny the Snake’s quick swerve from a deep-think philosophic attack on his philosopher brother (“Come on, be frank. What do you make of all this business of being and not being?”) to the inspired thought that Ruth, who has decided not to return to America, might be put to use to boost the income of this strange household.
LENNY: Why don’t I take her up with me to Greek Street?
MAX: You mean put her on the game? … We’ll put her on the game. That’s a stroke of genius, that’s a marvelous idea. You mean she can earn the money herself on her back?
For Ruth’s reaction Ruth’s reaction through the shockproof brain of Nobel Prizewinner-to-be Harold Pinter you will have to go to the Cort Theatre and be jolted back and forth for two hours by the “Homecoming” that brought Mr. Pinter home to so many of us not all those many years ago. If I vividly remember Paul Rogers as Max, Ian Holm as Lenny, and, most of all, the late Vivien Merchant (then Mrs. Harold Pinter) as dark, sexual, mysterious Ruth, it is none of the present actors’ fault. But I do think that Ruth need not go out of her way to affect a lower-class (or any class) London accent.
You will note the [Pause] in the above fragment of dialogue. Pinter is famous second only to Beckett as the master of the pause. He has been parodied for it everywhere, ever since he started. But the strange thing is, these 40 years after “The Homecoming” first broke upon these shores, the people in it have never stopped jabbering, jabbering, jabbering away in non-sequiturs, irrelevancies, mismatches, torrents, all of which make a wilderness of great sense between the pauses.
There’s “a certain logical incoherence” to it, as Lenny the serpent says. I mean, as Harold Pinter says.
THE HOMECOMING. By Harold Pinter. Directed by Daniel Sullivan. Through April 13 at the Cort Theatre, 138 West 48th Street, (212) 239-6200.