Theater | Review of: The Homecoming
By ERIC GRODE
December 17, 2007
The last 42 years have not necessarily been kind to "The Homecoming."
As the play's once unclassifiable sexual politics (misogynist?
feminist? both?) have lost much of their punch, and as decades of
Harold Pinter plays (and Harold Pinter knockoffs) have muted the blow
of his relentless cadences, the onus shifts to the director to
provide a new, equally compelling context for this biting 1965
dissection of gender warfare. Mr. Pinter is, of course, known for his
loaded pauses, but in those instances where the shock appeal has
curdled, it becomes necessary to essentially reload them.
Luckily, he has in Daniel Sullivan a director capable of honoring the
play's still potent confrontations while compensating for the
inevitable dip in unpredictability. This shabby all-male North London
home may reek of sweat and cigar smoke, but Mr. Sullivan's forceful
mounting, led by Ian McShane and Eve Best as the two primary
combatants, breathes vivifying air into several of the play's mustier corners.
Cohabiting none too comfortably are Max (Mr. McShane), a retired
butcher in a perpetual state of war against his own diminished state;
his brother Sam (Michael McKean), a chauffeur who wears his uniform
and his innate decency with equal pride; and two of Max's three sons.
Joey (Gareth Saxe) has only begun his career as a boxer, but his
thick tongue and even thicker skull bespeak a decent number of
punches already received to the head; Teddy (Raul Esparza), a nattily
dressed pimp, bristles with the jabbering, hostile insecurity of a
man who has delivered his own share of punches.
The boys' dead mother, Jessie, is described as everything from "the
backbone to this family" to a prostitute, but her absence is
unquestionably felt. Cooking or cleaning with any level of
proficiency is viewed within the brood as suspect, unmanly. (The mere
sight of Eugene Lee's dusty set, punctuated by a missing chunk of the
living room wall, is enough to send one reaching for a Claritin.) And
the appearance of the eldest son, Teddy (James Frain), from America
after six years is far less important than the presence of his wife,
Ruth (Ms. Best), a brittle beauty armed with a discomfiting level of
Rarely has Freud's notion of the madonna-whore dichotomy been
realized so literally, as Ruth finds herself thrust into both
backbone and prostitute duties. The rest of the play is devoted to
the increasingly lubricious possibilities that Joey, Lenny, and
especially the tyrannical Max can think up for Ruth and what these
scenarios might cost them. "The Homecoming" made its premiere just as
the second wave of feminism was picking up speed; within a year, the
National Organization for Women (NOW) would be formed and the phrase
"women's liberation" would first appear in print. Mr. Pinter casts
this particular woman's liberation as a form of enslavement her
own, perhaps, but also that of her newfound "family."
Somewhat surprisingly, Mr. Sullivan's reputation as an exacting but
empathic actors' director ("Dinner With Friends," "Intimate Apparel")
is burnished, not offset, by Mr. Pinter's deterministic worldview.
Those famous silences, which in lesser hands can seem arid and
stage-managed, somehow sound different coming from each character.
Max hovers anxiously and in vain for any sort of validation.
Teddy and Sam use the pauses to enter unreachable reveries of
resignation and fury, respectively. Joey labors to process whatever
has just been said. Lenny lifts his chin and bides his time, waiting
to see what weapons may surface in the next statement.
His calculations, however, pale in comparison to Ruth's. While the
other characters content themselves largely with one-on-one
confrontations, she needs to gauge the effect of her provocations on
everyone in the room the three men who pose varying levels of
threats, obviously, but also her stupefied husband and the aghast Sam.
Ms. Best's mastery of Ruth's icy allure is as complete as her command
of romantic anxiety and impulsiveness was in last season's "A Moon
for the Misbegotten." In both plays, however, she has had to work her
magic without the benefit of a comparable sparring partner. First
came the bizarrely manic Kevin Spacey in "Moon," and now it's Mr.
Esparza's turn. In contrast to Mr. McShane's two-packs-a-day croak,
Mr. Esparza employs a wheedling, almost adolescent speaking voice
very similar to one he used to campy effect in "Taboo." In fact, he
grabs quick laughs on several occasions, severely limiting the
potency of his later scenes. He has, perhaps consciously, decided to
counter the conception of Lenny as a feral tough guy, offering
instead a penny-ante man-child laboring to equal his father's
malevolence. But this approach, while valid on the surface, saps a
crucial Act I dialogue between Lenny and Ruth of nearly all its
coiled menace. Menace still comes easily to Mr. McShane's Max, albeit
in ever-dwindling quantities. As his family members scramble to stay
out of striking distance, it becomes clear that any use of Max's cane
for assistance in walking is purely incidental. Punching a son in the
guts may send the old man staggering as well these days, but that's
not about to stop him. Mr. McShane makes both the stagger and the
initial urge chillingly plausible.
Open run (138 W. 48th St., between Sixth and Seventh avenues, 212-239-6200).