Ye Un-Merry Gentlemen


Christmas is the dark time of year. Until Charles Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol
and its impassioned fan club invented goody-good seasonal sentimentality, Christmas was a time for telling scary or gory stories while huddled by the fireside. So when producers offer us Pinter and Beckett, the twin kings of ungodly despair, as holiday treats, don’t look askance: They’re simply updating the season’s truest ancient tradition. “A sad tale’s best for winter,” as some dead white guy once remarked. And nobody, but nobody, has a lock on sadness like Beckett and Pinter.

The Homecoming is Pinter’s idea of a tribute to family love and the bonds of kinship: something like the nastiest, most vicious episode of My Three Sons ever imagined. Max (Ian McShane), a retired butcher, and his brother Sam (Michael McKean), a limo driver, share what was apparently their parents’ house with Max’s two younger sons, Lenny (Raul Esparza), a pimp, and Joey (Gareth Saxe), a demolition worker aspiring to be a professional boxer. Into this womanless home full of sibling rivalries comes the son that got away: Teddy (James Frain) has managed to lift himself above the family’s lower-middle status and become a Ph.D. who now teaches philosophy in the U.S. Married 10 years and the father of three sons himself (in the play’s many silences, you can often hear old family patterns recapitulating), Teddy has at last returned so that the family can finally meet his wife, Ruth (Eve Best). It’s never clear whether his failure to return earlier comes from career pressure or from inner reluctance; the response when he turns up makes a strong justification for the latter.

Pinter, being Pinter, declines to supply the explanatory signals that would make the characters’ intentions clear. Do the five men loathe or love each other? And how, precisely, do Teddy’s sibs feel about Ruth? What, for that matter, does she make of the family’s curious situation? Many of these questions, answered in
The Homecoming‘s startling last scenes, will be old news to those familiar with the work. But today’s Broadway audience, largely reared on musicals and nearly two-thirds made up of out-of-towners looking for a good time, doesn’t contain a lot of cognoscenti. The more knowledgeable may derive a good deal of fun from listening to the yelps of surprise around them, or to the abruptly suppressed giggles and sniggers of those who find some of the startling events funny and then firmly decide they shouldn’t: The tourist audience has grown up largely sheltered from Pinter’s unsugared view of family values, as well as from his slash-and-fold modernist way of conveying it.

Daniel Sullivan’s production shows an occasional tendency to slip into a kind of soft focus emotionally, which probably doesn’t come from his awareness of the audience’s relative na
ïveté in matters Pinterite. The more likely explanation is a simple inconsistency of attack: Though working hard to appear members of the same family, the actors periodically seem to resist the unsparing way Pinter lays down the family dynamics. The most frequent offender is Esparza, whose Lenny, vulnerable and unmenacing, keeps displaying sympathetic reactions where the text begs for stonily noncommittal reserve. Frain too often responds in kind, and McShane’s Max seems to have carefully adjusted the thermostat of the character’s tone so that it reads several points lower than the nearly unremitting hostility that Paul Rogers projected so memorably in the original production.

Often, though, Sullivan’s directing grasps the play’s disorienting ambiguities precisely, suggesting that the slightly gentled-down tone might merely come from this being a different era and the production having a different country of origin. The shock the play supplies has not yet worn off; it’s simply been assimilated into a more normal-seeming life than it projected in 1965. When Eve Best’s Ruth negotiates her “contract” with the family, she conducts the dialogue as a simple, matter-of-fact business negotiation. This may jar you if you recall, as I did, Vivien Merchant’s way of making the whole subject sound like some mystic and ancient ritual. But Pinter, one suspects, might very well prefer the matter-of-factness. He would almost certainly prefer, to Terence Rigby’s conventionally thick-witted Joey of 1965, the eerie Frankenstein’s monster of a Joey that Sullivan has shaped out of Gareth Saxe, all biceps and chin, with complete vacancy in the eyes.

Starker and sparer than Pinter’s, Beckett’s despair confronts the audience more bluntly, though no less playfully. Pinter’s dodgy tricks with language and social masks would always be trumped by Beckett’s transparent hopelessness— except that the latter, too, often turns out to be a game. Not that this makes an audience any more comfortable: In Beckett’s vision, the universe’s favorite game is always tag, and you, the human being, are always It. Beckett was marvelously consistent in this over his long career: Only the ground on which the game is played shifts from work to work. Some of his pieces place it in a wholly abstract world, where people accept their victimhood with a kind of Mondrian masochism. In others, the setting seems to be Hell, a city much like Dublin after a nuclear holocaust. In still others, the hell is simply the one inside the human mind.

JoAnne Akalaitis’s four-play assemblage, Beckett Shorts, mixes and matches the three categories, apparently in an effort to structure an evening-long opportunity for Mikhail Baryshnikov—though “long” is hardly the operative word, since the event runs a terse 65 minutes. It’s intermissionless, though Act Without Words I and Act Without Words II, which belong to the wholly abstract division, should have been clearly separated from Rough for Theatre I and Eh Joe, which come from the Hell-equals-Dublin and Hell-is-an-Irishman’s-brain categories respectively. Striving to unify these disparate pieces, Akalaitis gives them a dressy, high-tech look, with Alexander Brodsky’s sets giving the deserts and ruins that Beckett calls for the aura of a Formica-walled motel.

The tactic fits the clean abstractness of the two “acts without words,” in which Baryshnikov, alone in one and paired with dancer-choreographer David Neumann in the other, plays an anonymous figure tormented by an unseen force. Movement is everything here, and Baryshnikov, wearing a helpless, bemused expression, looks awfully fetching in his (Beckett?) shorts. The puckish pastel touches with which Brodsky brightens up the space don’t dissipate the works’ essential darkness, heightened by Philip Glass’s plangent music.

The wobbling starts with Rough for Theatre I, a dialogue for a blind man and street musician that suggests a test run for Endgame. Baryshnikov’s Slavic lilt makes an odd vocal partner for Bill Camp, unaccented but slightly orotund, and their helpless, post-disaster world is barely evoked. Eh Joe, originally written for TV, gets altogether muffled, with giant video projections of Baryshnikov’s head distracting us from this magical artist’s very real presence, off in a downstage corner, while in the opposite corner upstage the female voice in his head is embodied, eloquently but far too elegantly, by Karen Kandel. Even with these shortfalls, though, Beckett Shorts, like The Homecoming, gets its bleak sense across: There’s no hope, and we’re no comfort to each other in our hopelessness. Merry Christmas to you, too.