There seem to be some playwright-actor pairings that were ordained in theater heaven. Some have lasted for only a short period and others went on for the actor’s career. Matthew Broderick was the embodiment of Neil Simon’s young alter ego, Eugene Jerome. Elizabeth Ashley is tailor-made to portray most of Tennessee Williams’s Southern heroines from Maggie the Cat to Princess Kosmonopolis. Mary Martin could do almost any musical role, from the Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up to Agnes Snow of I Do! I Do!, but she and the team of Rodgers and Hammerstein were connected at soul level. Julie Andrews took up Martin’s mantle (and one of her roles for the film adaptation!), but with Lerner and Loewe, she was untouchable and indelible. (On film, I think of the team of director Billy Wilder, screenwriter I. A. L. Diamond, and actor Jack Lemmon: Some Like It Hot, The Apartment, Irma la Douce, Fortune Cookie, The Front Page, Avanti!, Buddy Buddy.) So when I read that Jonathan Pryce was coming to BAM in Harold Pinter’s The Caretaker, I had the feeling that this was another inimitable teaming and I wondered why it hadn’t happened many times before. (I can’t find any reference to Pryce having done any other Pinter plays before, though I only did a cursory search.) It seems such obvious casting—for almost any Pinter script you can name. And, after seeing the performance at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Harvey Theater on Friday night, 4 May, I know I’m right: Pryce was born to play Pinter. It’s only a shame that the dramatist didn’t live to see this interpretation, directed by Christopher Morahan and co-starring Alan Cox and Alex Hassell, brought to the stage by Theatre Royal Bath Productions and Liverpool Everyman and Playhouse. He’d have to have loved it. (Pinter was around, however, for a BBC TV rendering Pryce did in 1980 in honor of Pinter’s 50th birthday. Pryce, who played Mick, was also with that staging when it was mounted at the National Theatre. Pinter, who won the Nobel Prize in literature in 2005, is reported to have supported the current revival, which went into planning just before his death in 2008 at the age of 78.)
The Caretaker premièred at the Arts Theatre in London on 27 April 1960, the same year the text was published in Britain. The original production starred Donald Pleasance as Davies, Alan Bates as Mick, and Peter Woodthorpe as Aston under the direction of Donald McWhinnie. It moved to the Duchess Theatre in the West End on 30 May 1960 and opened at the Lyceum Theatre on Broadway on 4 October 1962 with Robert Shaw replacing Woodthorpe. The London run was over 400 performances, making The Caretaker Pinter’s first important success after five previous plays for stage and television. A film version (with Pleasance, Bates, and Shaw recreating their Broadway performances) was released in 1963 (1964 in the States) under the title The Guest, and revivals have been constant around the world both in English and in translation. The last major New York revivals were in 1986 in a Steppenwolf production at Circle in the Square uptown, starring Alan Wilder, Gary Sinise, and Jeff Perry directed by John Malkovich; and a Roundabout production directed by David Jones at the American Airlines Theatre with Patrick Stewart, Aidan Guillen, and Kyle MacLachlan in 2003-04. The production at BAM started at the Everyman Theatre in Liverpool (where Pryce, now 65, débuted in 1972, joining the company after graduating from RADA) in October 2009 with Pryce and Tom Brooke as Mick and Peter McDonald as Aston; the presentation then moved on to the Theatre Royal Bath in November; it transferred to the Trafalgar Studios in London’s West End in January 2010. Before lighting in Brooklyn, this Caretaker has made appearances in Adelaide, Australia; San Francisco; and Columbus, Ohio. It’s the first major revival of a Pinter script since the playwright’s death. (The current production, which began at the Harvey on 3 May, will remain at BAM through 17 June.)
The Caretaker is set in a single room of an old house, haphazardly filled with junk: a bed, paint bucket, discarded rugs, stacks of paper, a statue of Buddha, a gas stove, and a toaster; we know there are other rooms along the corridor beyond the door, but we never see them or learn much about them. There are also other houses along the street with residents visible through the windows, but we never meet any of them. When the play opens, Mick (Hassell) is sitting on the bed, looking deliberately at each object. He doesn’t say a word. When he hears the sounds of approaching voices, he silently exits the room, almost vanishing like smoke. Enter Aston (Cox) and a man we learn is using the assumed name of Bernard Jenkins (Pryce). While Mick is wearing jeans and a leather motorcycle jacket—he’s half a rocker (the time, unstated, seems to be around 1960, when the play was written)—Aston is in a suit and tie, looking like an office worker. Jenkins, little more than a homeless bum who admits later that his real name is Mac Davies (or maybe not), wears grubby, tattered rags of whatever he could find, steal, or cadge. (The set and costumes are by Eileen Diss, who worked on a 1964 mounting of The Caretaker at the Everyman, and Dany Everett.) The old man has just been thrown out of a café where he worked and was being given a beating by a “Scotchman” from whom Aston has just rescued him. Davies (as he’s called in the script, irrespective of the name he’s using at any moment in the play) isn’t the most tolerant Londoner you could meet: he denigrates the neighbors he sees in the next building, who appear to be Indian—“Blacks,” as Davies calls them—and worried that they may come into Aston’s building to use the bathroom. He goes on to have his say about “Poles, Greeks, Blacks.” Aston invites Davies to stay until he can get on his feet—for which he needs his “papers,” which he stashed with a friend in Sidcup. But he can’t get to Sidcup until the weather clears—and he can get a suitable pair of shoes to replace the remnants he’s got on now. Aston says he owns the building and is trying to fix it up with the help of his brother who’s in the building trade. He offers to let Davies stay on as caretaker for the premises, even though Davies tells him he’s never done any caretaking before. Act two starts with a violent confrontation when Mick surprises Davies alone in the room and confronts the old man about touching his things. Mick now claims he’s the building’s owner—he has the deed to prove it, he says—and that Aston, his brother, had no business letting Davies live in the room, sleeping in Mick’s bed. (Mick eventually makes the same offer to Davies, who never mentions that Aston has already taken him on.) Aston arrives just as Mick gets the upper hand and is about to thrash Davies. Davies plays one brother off against the other, though, curiously, Pinter almost never has both younger men in a scene together. (The play’s really a string of two-character scenes between Davies and one brother or the other, spanning about 2½ hours, including one intermission.) In the end, Aston tells Davies, “I don’t think we’re hitting it off,” and throws him out. Even then, Davies tries to get Mick to let him return, but Mick engineers a misunderstanding and both brothers leave Davies in limbo and the play ends with neither Davies nor the audience knowing his standing or his future.
Pinter said, according to his authorized biography by Michael Billington, that the source of The Caretaker was his living conditions in the mid-1950s. He and his first wife, Vivien Merchant, were living in near poverty in a first-floor flat in an old house. The building’s owner was “a builder, in fact, like Mick who had his own van and whom I hardly ever saw.” The man’s brother, the building handyman, also lived in the house and had had electroshock treatments in a mental hospital like Aston in Caretaker. One night, the playwright told Billington, the brother brought an old homeless man back to the house and let him stay for several weeks. Billington said Pinter had “a certain fellow feeling” for the old man, with whom he spoke a little, because at the time, the dramatist recounted, the couple were living “a very threadbare existence . . . very . . . I was totally out of work. So I was very close to this old derelict’s world, in a way.” Pinter’s retelling of the events, though, was clearly influenced by the newly-emerging works of Samuel Beckett, especially Waiting for Godot, which had only had its London début five years before Caretaker premièred (at the same Arts Theatre, as it happens). (Coincidentally, this is the second play I’ve seen this season that was heavily influenced by Beckett and Godot. Back in February, I saw the first show at the Signature Theatre’s new complex, Athol Fugard’s Blood Knot, reported on ROT on 28 February, which I said bore many echoes of the same writer and absurdist play as Pinter’s Caretaker.)
In addition, of course, there are hints, not yet fully developed, of the signature techniques and motifs of Pinter’s playwriting. There are fewer of the mystery-laden pauses than in his later, more iconic works, but the vague and unstated threat, the undiscussed menace is noticeably present. Mick, the rocker-manqué, is physically violent, but Aston exudes the potential for both psychological and physical aggression, and Davies, though he appears weak and easily intimidated, carries a knife and hints at past acts of force. Furthermore, the whole house could come down in a clump: the roof leaks into a bucket hung from the room’s ceiling, there’s a constant draft from the single window (which is right over Davies’s bed, not coincidentally), and the gas stove just upstage of that same bed may or may not be hooked up. The very emptiness of the house—most of it’s closed up—and the hint that neighbors may be coming and going at will are also unspecifically ominous.
Nonetheless, The Caretaker is quite funny, especially in the first half to two-thirds. There are even bits that resemble vaudeville routines (evocative of Godot as well: Beckett was very enamored of music hall comedy). In one elaborate (and exceedingly well-coordinated) bit, the three men pass around a tote bag the way vaudevillians might work a hat gag. “As far as I'm concerned,” wrote Pinter in 1960, “‘The Caretaker’ is funny, up to a point. Beyond that point, it ceases to be funny, and it was because of that point that I wrote it.” As the dramatist implies, the “funny” is double-edged, masking a serious implication or perhaps a threat. For instance, the bag-passing routine is a bit of silliness, though like a junior high school game of keep-away, it has an undertone of meanness, especially by Mick toward Davies (though the two brothers are none too gentle with one another, either). At the same time, the passing of the bag from hand to hand is a reflection of the way Davies passes from Aston to Mick and back, sometimes by his own machinations and sometimes by circumstance, and how the balance of power in the flat shifts from one character to another. Even as early as 1960, Pinter was a master of dramaturgical multitasking.
The humor in Caretaker may be the signal difference between Morahan’s interpretation of the play and the way most other productions of this and other Pinter scripts are directed. Playing up the comedy, which continues sporadically through the end of the production, simultaneously lessens the focus on the menace and threat that most spectators expect from Pinter now. What this shift in emphasis does, however, is make the twist at the end, the ambiguity with which Aston and Mick leave Davies, that much more confusing—and, I think, frightening. Furthermore, Morahan hasn’t violated the text in any way to effect this shift; it fits perfectly logically with what Pinter wrote. In fact, I suspect that when Caretaker was first presented, no one really knowing what Pinter was up to yet, the focus on the comedy may have been intended so that the twist comes as a shock at the end. After Pinter was hailed as a genius and his plays were discussed, analyzed, and interpreted, the idea that he implanted this unspecified threat in his plays became the one thing about his work that everyone knew going in. It was expected and anticipated, so directors and actors began to spotlight it. Morahan may just have gone back to a more naïve view of Caretaker and presented what audiences may have experienced in 1960, without the overlay modern interpreters have imposed on it. As David Sheward put it in Back Stage, Morahan’s revival “doesn't go for the surface Pinteresque clichés. Instead, it explores the loneliness and need underneath the weird behavior and dialogue.” In any case, his approach worked like gangbusters as executed by this excellent cast.
(I’m reminded of a possible historical parallel. Hamlet is seen as a melancholy brooder nearly always dressed in black. Virtually no one presents the character in any other way today. But that interpretation was the invention of Edwin Booth in the 1860s and was pretty much an outgrowth of his own morose and dour personality. Before Booth, an immensely popular actor who garnered an international following, Hamlet was not presented the way we think of him today, but Booth’s portrayal of the character that became his signature role has eclipsed any other viable interpretation. Morahan may have exposed the same kind of lost vision in Pinter that has been buried under years of “theatrical correctness.”)
The two young characters seem to evoke the youth movements that were popular among some of Britain’s young people in the late ’50s and early ’60s, mostly before the hippies took over the youth culture all over the west. Though neither young man is wholly a model for these once-recognizable types, they both hint at them enough to suggest some of the characteristics associated with the subcultures. It would have been a way for Pinter to suggest traits and tendencies for his characters without having to spell them out—a decided advantage if he wanted to intimate certain capabilities without demonstrating them. I’ve already said that Mick’s dress was a half-step towards the rocker boys who emulated the look and attitude of Marlon Brando’s character, Johnny Strabler, in The Wild One. He wears a leather jacket and pegged jeans, but not motorcycle boots and he doesn’t sport the typical hairstyle of the rocker, the greased-up DA. Mick’s in his middle or late 20’s, not a teenager, so the association with the rocker is possibly a passing one, but the look makes possible the threat of violence as well as the racial and ethnic bigotry that was common among rockers in the late ’50s. In contrast, Aston, who’s in his 30’s, dresses in a suit. It’s worn and “shabby,” as Pinter notes, but it was probably once stylish. It doesn’t have the flash and high-style outlandishness of the typical Teddy boy of the era, but it’s enough to suggest it, particularly when juxtaposed with Mick’s rocker attire. Unlike the third youth subculture of the period, the mods, Teddy boys were more than capable of violence. (Teds, like the rockers, also bore animosity for the Indian and Pakistani immigrants to Britain.) Aston’s a little older than the average Ted, even more than Mick is with regard to the rockers, which might account for the fact that he only approximates the look, but like Mick’s suggestion of rocker style, it’s evocative of his proclivities without baldly stating them.
Now, I haven’t done any research on this to see if there’s any documented connection between The Caretaker and the youth movements of the middle of the last century, and I’m not going to do any to confirm my impression. It’s sufficient for me that the impression was conveyed in the performance, and even if Pinter never intended it, it happened. I also acknowledge that the ’60s is half a century ago and perhaps not many in the audience—or in the production company for this Caretaker (except Morahan)—would light on this little cultural reference anymore, even if Pinter had intended to use it when he wrote the play. (As it happens, I’m not only of the right generation to have been around during the days of the mods, rockers, and Teddy boys, but I was living in Europe at the time, going to school with Brits of the appropriate age. I’ll even confess to having been something of a mod myself in those years.) Still, as far I’m concerned, it’s implicit.
The show’s set is placed far back on the Harvey’s stage, leaving a deep apron of dark wood between the cluttered (but light-floored) room and the front row. From our vantage point in the mezzanine, what my usual companion Diana and I saw was a sort of island of life in what looked like a sea of ambiguity. (It may be a mark of this uncertainty that Michael Feingold in the Village Voice thought the flat was in the basement of the house while Joe Dziemianowicz of the Daily News said it was in the attic.) While this reinforced the sense I had that the room was isolated and abandoned, it also distanced the action and the potential danger from us. I don’t know what kind of houses the other performances of The Caretaker were staged in, but I’d say that Pinter’s play—and perhaps all his work—does best in smaller, more intimate theaters. (I saw a pretty good production of The Birthday Party at the Guthrie a number of years ago. That Minneapolis theater is not only fairly large, but it’s also a thrust stage, which really isolates the performance area from the audience. I recall it being a somewhat chilly presentation.) Within the restrictions this set-up provides, though, Diss and Everett, along with lighting designer Colin Grenfell and sound designer Tom Lishman, provide a hauntingly Pinteresque environment. The set’s clutter is so eclectic that I found myself wondering where it had all come from and how it ended up in that room. (It raised the unanswered question of what the three men did when they weren’t in the room. We know Davies once had a job, but not anymore—and he does little “caretaking” in the house. Mick has a van, Aston tell us, but what he does with it and what Aston himself does when he’s out, we never get a clue.) The room is barely lit by the single bare bulb over Aston’s bed, leaving shadows and unlit corners; Grenfell occasionally spotlights one actor while darkening the rest of the room, making the isolation starker than ever. When the sun shines through the one window, it’s a cold, yellow light. (The program, by the way, gives no information on the season or time of day, much less the year, though the script says simply “A night in winter” and “A fortnight later.”) The regular dripping of the roof leak into the metal bucket suspended from the ceiling is like a very loud, slow clock ticking away the empty, unproductive hours and days.
This finally brings me to the acting, which I’ve deliberately saved for last. I’ll start with this: this production is unquestionably one of the very best pieces of acting I’ve ever seen, especially in recent memory. (I’m not generally a great fan of Pinter’s work, which I usually find frustrating and aggravating. In the words of Charles Isherwood in the New York Times, “[W]orking to solve the mysteries in Pinter plays would have to rank among the more maddening mind games you could set for yourself.” The Caretaker, however, is one of his plays I’ve always liked.) Individually, the three actors are marvelous, embodying the characters so thoroughly I can’t imagine anyone else doing them better. Pryce, of course, has been incarnating Davies now for a couple of years; I don’t know how long Cox and Hassell have been with this production, though they’re no less grounded. Pryce’s every moment is true and complex, conveying all kinds of subtle notes and overtones. I’ve mentioned before that I used to keep a mental list of the best individual performances I’d seen; I no longer keep the list, but if I did, Pryce’s Davies would go up alongside James Earl Jones’s Jack Jefferson (The Great White Hope), Alec McCowen’s Frederick William Rolfe (Hadrian VII), and Pat Carroll’s Gertrude Stein (Gertrude Stein Gertrude Stein Gertrude Stein). He never once sounds a false or off-key note. (A musical allusion is apt for Pryce. Welsh by birth, he retains the lilting and melodic vocal quality of his countrymen which makes Pinter’s poetic prose dialogue simply float from the stage. Though some critics say that Davies is Welsh—it is a Welsh name—there’s no indication in the script and Pryce’s accent for the role was more London street speech, but there’s a lyricism to Pryce’s delivery that defies description or analysis. I must note, though, that at least two New York reviewers, Feingold of the Voice and Frank Scheck of the New York Post, found fault with Pryce’s Welsh speech, saying that it interfered with their comprehension of some of the lines.
Cox’s Aston is so subdued that I wonder if his pulse would even register. He’s not bland or characterless, but tamped down, as if he has to control himself tightly lest he go off. When Aston finally delivers a long monologue about his incarceration in a mental hospital and treatment with electric shock, Cox, while manifesting a detachment as if he were describing someone else’s experience, conveys such horror that I almost couldn’t listen without squirming in my seat. (I turned to Diana and whispered that we’d just seen a superlative piece of acting. I was flabbergasted.) Finally, when Aston quietly tells Davies they’re not getting along and Davies should find other accommodations, Cox somehow makes clear that this isn’t just a polite suggestion and that he’s more than ready to take action—and Pryce’s Davies reacts with the appropriate terror (Pryce’s eyes are an acting exercise in themselves in this performance). Mick, on the other hand, isn’t averse to using the threat of violence, as we witness early in the play, and it can be in the form of physical force or a little psychological torture, and in Hassell’s performance the younger brother fits the image perfectly. But Hassell shines as a performer when Mick describes in the most genteel terms the kind of interior decor he wants to install in the house when it’s fixed up. The incongruity of Mick in his Cockney-infused street accent uttering phrases like “teal-blue, copper and parchment linoleum squares” and “a beech frame settee with a woven sea-grass seat” is wonderfully set up by Hassell: it could have been just a joke the playwright slips in for our benefit or a way of mocking the character by making him use language he can’t handle or probably even understand, but Hassell makes it absolutely natural even as you know in your head that it shouldn’t be.
But the three individual performances, as magnificent as they are, aren’t the end of the acting prowess on display in The Caretaker. This is an ensemble production, though oddly structured, and even as each actor displays work of surpassing excellence, together they demonstrate how to meld their talents into a seamless whole at the same time. Even though Mick and Aston are rarely on stage together (and when they are, there’s little exchange between them), the cast creates a world inhabited simultaneously by all three men. Davies is the connective tissue that binds the men together, and the three actors never seem to lose sight of the fact that this little world, for however long it lasts, is shared among them all. Even when one brother is on stage alone with Davies, the two exude the awareness of the missing presence, if you will. Additionally, as exquisite as Pryce’s performance is on its own, he never overshadows Cox or Hassell when he’s working with one of the brothers. This Caretaker is no star turn with a couple of supporting actors to fill out the cast—and that’s thanks in large part to Morahan’s guidance. (Morahan’s bio includes some TV work I’ve seen, though I wouldn’t have recognized his name, but most of his credits are unfamiliar to me and judging from his work in The Caretaker, I don’t know why I don’t know his work better. Morahan, who’s almost 83, should have the rep of a Nicholas Hytner, Richard Eyre, or Peter Hall.)
In the press, most reviewers saw the production as I did, as an immensely gratifying theater experience—some with specific caveats (often the situation of the set as I described it). Only the Voice and Post writers found the production disappointing overall. Feingold, pretty much disparaging the whole effort, complains that Pryce “vitiates the play's effect” by, essentially, overacting. The Voice reviewer objects that “Morahan saps the script's strength further by trying to dodge conventional choices” and concludes that “Pinter comes through, but wanly.” Scheck opens his notice by averring that the production “proves frustrating, and not for the reasons one might expect” and adds that it’s “distancing in more ways than one.” The Post review-writer notes that “air of danger that is only sporadically achieved” and ends by asserting that the results are “respectable” but not “galvanizing.”
Alternatively, Dziemianowicz writes in the News that Morahan’s “take emphasizes jagged humor without erasing the ominous feeling enveloping this tragicomedy” and certifies that “if this production downplays the dread, it appears in clever ways.” In Newsday, Linda Winer, describing Pryce as “magisterial,” while noting the “lack of mystery,” calls Morahan’s staging “taut if straightforward.” In Back Stage, Sheward describes the production as “subtle” and says it “stresses [the] universal longing for contact.” Calling the production “potent” and “evocative,” David Cote of Time Out New York debates Pryce’s interpretation of the role (“the air of vaudeville comedian and an escaped mental patient—both perfectly suitable”) but ends by writing that the revival “stays faithful to the letter of Pinter’s world while rendering it freshly weird and ominous” as it “retains its unsettling mystery.” Finally, the Times’s Isherwood, in a review that’s a near rave, calls the revival an “excellent new production” directed “with a clarity that plays down the fog of menace that is sometimes laid on thickly in productions of Pinter’s work.”