Begin scene: soft mood lighting, late at night. His silk robe opens dramatically, as he pours her a tall glass of … water. Absurd sex has never been quite so disturbing — and riveting.
With the Broadway revival of his mid-’60s masterpiece “The Homecoming,” playwright Harold Pinter brings sensuality back to a cleaned-up Times Square. In contrast to the bland bright lights of corporate billboards, the world of the decaying family oscillates between hilarity and disturbing rawness. One of the best on Broadway in a season flooded with plays, this production suggests that a finely tuned ensemble may be the best way to transform Pinter’s obscure diction into a captivating family dissection.
The center of the tribe in question is father Max (Ian McShane), anchored in an ancient armchair. His brother Sam (Michael McKean) lives in the same house, works as a chauffeur and plays the part of the domestic — the two old bachelors couldn’t be more opposite. The next generation is composed of three sons; Lenny (Raul Esparza) and Joey (Gareth Saxe) have stayed with their father in North London. At the beginning of the first act, the third son and his wife arrive in the house in the middle of the night: the homecoming.
Teddy (James Frain) has been living in America and currently teaches philosophy at some prestigious university. He has three sons with his wife Ruth (Eve Best), and they’re all at the end of a European vacation. Teddy and Ruth were married in London six years ago, apparently without his father’s knowledge, and now he’s come home without warning.
Watching Pinter is something like assembling a puzzle. There’s no easy exposition or character development. Little about the plot — if there is one — develops as expected, and the various surreal twists often leave productions of his plays impotent and frustrated. Thankfully, the naturalistic approach of this staging handily avoids this trap.
The scenes in “The Homecoming” appear simple at first. Set in a large living room, skillfully designed by Eugene Lee, they are mundane on the surface, but small details — Esparza pouring water, McShane carefully sputtering and raging — make every moment compelling. The performers are so charismatic, and the plot so opaque, that it’s difficult to blink for fear of missing some illuminating detail.
Esparza’s performance is reason enough to see this production. Executed with impeccable comic timing, his Lenny is perfectly self-possessed and sleazy. McShane is equally compelling, and perhaps even creepier, as he wields his power as patriarch. Best’s portrayal of Ruth appears out of place at first — she acts as though plagued by a horrible migraine when she first enters and remains oddly stylized throughout the play. Even though her hollow delivery can be a little off-putting, it somehow manages to work: Her stylized motions appear natural, not forced.
Director Daniel Sullivan has kept the ensemble well-oiled and suitably choreographed, creating the sensation of a family slowly spinning out of control. Joshua Brody ’07, assistant director for this production, explained that Sullivan deliberately went against popular dramaturgical theories to keep the characters grounded in a reality that resembles ours. It certainly worked for this production, and it would be interesting to see if a similar treatment would do the same for Pinter’s other, more obscure works.
The combination of disturbing misogyny — Ruth is constantly referred to as “tart” or “slut” — and numb affect makes “The Homecoming” feel surprisingly relevant. The emotional distance forced on the characters and the audience, by proxy, feels eerily like the vicarious pleasure afforded by the instant gratification of the Internet and blogosphere. Contemporary technology can remove emotion from everyday communication and make it seem painless; the blatant quality of “The Homecoming” cuts away at this artificial distance and asks how numb we can afford to be.
There is no easy moral lesson to be had by the end of the brief two-act play: Pinter not only refuses to provide answers, but also recognizable questions. This opaque approach to portraying life creates a particular — and profound — kind of theatrical realism. All that a story really needs is a glass of water, a silk robe and a woman’s bare calves.