Invoking the name of Pinter to theater insiders produces the same awestruck reverence as displayed by pilgrims to Graceland when they first encounter those guitar-shaped gates.
It was Sir Harold, as he is now known in England, who led theatergoers out of the realm of drawing-room comedies and social realism to a stylized terrain of evasion and menace. Just as Presley and the Beatles swept the niceties of Bing Crosby and big bands into the land of quaint relics, Pinter forged a new social order that rendered his predecessors equally quaint. He constructed an emotional and verbal shorthand, where characters fight for their territory rather than explain themselves.
Up until the late '50s, English actors were immersed in Noël Coward bluebloods and Shakespeare. Pinter, who was an actor himself, created a new form of theatrical communication influenced by Samuel Beckett but fleshed out in Cockney-accented verisimilitude. Rich with meaningful silences, this style is as mournful as T.S. Eliot's "The Waste Land" and as threatening as the American gangster movies Pinter was weaned on as a child.
The Caretaker, his first full-length work, was hailed by the intelligentsia of the early '60s as a revelation. But the old guard decried the style as an abomination that merely reflected the irrationality of the period. New York Times theater critic Brooks Atkinson dismissed the play as "a report of the psychological experience of a shiftless, self-destructive tramp, a form of naturalism carried to the point of absurdity, an almost unedited version, or so it seemed, of irrelevant conversations."
Anyone venturing downtown to examine this revival of Pinter's epochal work will see that there is validity in both the praise and condemnation. The play has taken on the brittle feel of an old pair of shoes, still showing its original craftsmanship but grown tight, pinched, and uncompromising with the years.
Studio 210's minuscule stage is strewn with rusted appliances, all broken, useless, and dangerous in the manner of the play's three characters. The setting is an attic, inhabited by the innocent and damaged Aston, here played by Allan Byrne, who ever hopefully works on repairing his broken toaster in much the same way as he's trying to repair his life. He offers shelter to a mangy, homeless old tramp named Davies (Reuben Silver). The triangle is completed by his host's dangerous and loquacious brother, Mick (Kirk Brown). The derelict, eager to obtain permanent residence by landing a job as caretaker of the property, tries to play one brother against the other. Those looking for philosophical implications can read this as a symbol of original sin. Davies succeeds only in antagonizing both and is subsequently evicted from this dank Eden.
Both Brown and Byrne are a good two decades past the ideal age for their roles, thus nullifying the surrogate father aspect of the play. Director Mango wisely emphasizes the dark comedy over the metaphysical menace. His direction is an example of effectively using the nuances of old pros. Byrne, with a face that's paradoxically worn yet babyish, gracefully balances a holy innocence with an off-putting oddness. His performance evokes a forlorn Stan Laurel in its comic tenderness. Silver eschews his usual avuncular demeanor to unearth a raging trash-can Lear, shaking his fist at imagined insults. He gives probably the darkest performance of his career, seeming to decompose before our eyes. Brown's thug, rhapsodizing in a fruity lisp over "oatmeal tweed" armchairs and "deep azure blue carpet," is as absurd as anything in the film canon of Peter Sellers.
Effective performances aside, the unrelenting nihilism is too much for some people to handle. In a space hardly more roomy than a Maytag washer, the constant barrage of relations gone moldy with antipathy can overwhelm and irritate.
Pinter's menagerie of vipers has been so often imitated in subsequent works by him and other writers, such as Mamet and Shepard, that what originally emerged as revelation has through the years turned into reiteration.
Even battered with age, The Caretaker, with its droll observations on human depravity and need, occasionally absents itself from dreariness and sparkles with malice. Although expertly done, can you draw sweet sustenance from a cesspool?