The menace is mostly missing in the Roundabout Theatre Company's uneven Broadway revival of "The Caretaker," Harold Pinter's bleak treatise on identity and possessiveness set in a squalid London attic.
Instead, what we get at center stage is a cozy, almost genial star turn by Patrick Stewart as a tattered, decrepit bum who finds himself in the company of two strange brothers, played by Kyle MacLachlan and Aidan Gillen. Stewart mines the play for laughs, which is OK, but then fails to tap into the nastiness and eventual desperation that should drive his character.
Davies, a man of indeterminate background and dubious morals, is deliberately enigmatic. Yet Stewart provides an odd sense of comfort, compared to the unnerving, more appropriate performances by MacLachlan and, particularly, Gillen.
These days, "The Caretaker," which introduced Broadway audiences to Pinter in 1961, is a leisurely affair - three acts of cat-and-mouse games that go on a bit too long under David Jones methodical direction.
The plot? Davies has been brought to the house in West London by Aston, played by MacLachlan. The tramp is being considered for a job as caretaker in this dilapidated building, and, as such, has to coo up to these odd siblings if he wants to have a place to stay.
Stewart, looking emaciated and almost wizened in designer Jane Greenwood's dirty, ragtag clothing, exerts a great deal of charm in winning over the audience, if not his would-be employers. The actor can command an audience's attention. All those years of playing charismatic Jean-Luc Picard on "Star Trek: The Next Generation" certainly helped.
MacLachlan finds considerable emotion in the mournful Aston, a quiet man whose mental state is none-too steady after a bout in a mental hospital (and electroschock therapy) left him slow of speech and thought. It’s not a showy portrait, but one that grows on you as the evening progresses.
Where play and performance come together most successfully is in the work of Gillen, best known here as the star of the British version of "Queer As Folk." Gillen has a sneering baby face, just right for Mick, the jittery, almost sadistic younger brother.
The actor gives a tough yet funny performance as a vaguely psychotic punk who takes delight in tormenting Stewart's character – while thinking up ways to redecorate the dreary lodgings.
What's more, Gillen jolts the play and the audience back to the uneasiness that should permeate the production. "The Caretaker" is a series of strong confrontations, with each brother getting a chance to have a go at Davies and Davies lashing back at them.
John Lee Beatty's remarkably cluttered attic set, a gloomy, junk-filled room, goes a long way toward suggesting a disturbing environment. It has a sense of foreboding that the rest of this production of "The Caretaker" lacks.
Harold Pinter's "The Caretaker" has not worn well.
It's hard to imagine how much excitement this play caused when it opened in New York in 1962 alongside works by authors such as Beckett, Ionesco and the young Albee.
The early productions of Pinter were known for their pregnant pauses, in which critics and hip audiences could detect all manner of profundity.
Because the plays were surrounded by an aura of hocuspocus, they were also unsettling. The catchword invariably used to describe them was "menace." They were paradigms of the climate of fear of the nuclear age.
Little of this works anymore, as can be seen in the Roundabout's current revival of "The Caretaker," an early play about two brothers and their ever-changing relationship with a homeless man one of them invites to live with him.
What was once chilling and disquieting now seems academic, perhaps because we have seen the play so often or because modern life assaults us with far more jarring images of "menace."
Take, for example, the older brother's long monologue about his experience in a sanitarium, where he witnessed and experienced electroshock therapy. It is possible that performed in a less catatonic manner than Kyle MacLachlan does, the monologue might still be upsetting, but what was once startling has become a TV commonplace.
Interestingly, the character that seems the freshest is the nasty younger brother, perhaps because his whimsicality (inviting the homeless man to come to his place to "listen to some Tchaikovsky") seems weirder, more surreal, more unfathomable. Aiden Gillen plays him with great flair.
Patrick Stewart plays the title character with improvisatory zest, but the role, like the play itself, seems artificial.
The set is by John Lee Beatty, much of whose recent work has been opulent. Here he shows himself a master of shabbiness. Peter Kaczorowski has lit the stage powerfully.
Perhaps it's time to let Pinter rest a while. It would be interesting to see a revival of some plays by his contemporary David Storey, whose work, at least in retrospect, seems far more solid.
It is compelling theater. Odd but compelling. Just three men, either society dropouts or castoffs, garrulously yet meticulously talk and talk. The talk is basically about survival and living space.
Two, the rather more respectable, are brothers who indulge, connive, threaten and bully, the other is a querulous old tramp, who wheedles, whines and whimpers.
The cast is beautifully tuned to concert pitch, with Patrick Stewart as the angry, mean-spirited tramp, Davies, Kyle MacLachlan as the decent but dim-witted Aston, Aidan Gillen as Aston's slippery, quick-tempered brother Mick.
They seem to be a vaudeville act with attitude in one of the seedier suburbs of hell - funny, mysterious, disquieting.
They are, in fact, the characteristically Pinteresque trio of Harold Pinter's "The Caretaker," which last night opened at the Roundabout's American Airlines Theater.
It is fascinating how after only 43 years "The Caretaker" has achieved the dimensions of a classic.
The story - it's more of a situation than a story - is simply that of a homeless derelict (a man perhaps even himself uncertain of his name and background) fiddling a way to acquire a place in some kind of established household.
At one level it is totally naturalistic, although it is naturalism seen through a distorting prism. Linguistically everything makes sense, but for all that the attitudes the three characters take to one another are, at any realistic level, nonsensical.
They inhabit a world in which moods can change like April weather, and where what a person says may merely be subterfuge for what he thinks.
The three of them are playing survival games -and in this way relate to the manner that people may find themselves playing similar if superficially different games in their own lives.
There could be a bit of these three in most of us. This is what makes "The Caretaker" such a disturbing comedy of shockingly ill manners.
We are at first puzzled by the play's deliberately mixed messages, then perhaps seduced by its comic theatricality, and finally left wondering about the dangerous ambiguity of its possible purpose.
This new staging - Roundabout has a special affinity for Pinter and this is its third production of "The Caretaker" - is by David Jones, a Pinter specialist.
Stewart, shifty and arrogant by turn, proves splendidly braggart as the drifter Davies, wonderfully uncertain of the ground he's spitting on.
MacLachlan, cool and deliberate, provides just the right counterweight as the dour, mentally and emotionally challenged Aston, and perhaps best of all - it's the showiest role - is Gillen as Mick, mysterious businessman and archetypal Cockney wiseguy.
Whether "The Caretaker" will maintain a place in the classic canon is still disputable - it hasn't got the punch and coherence of the playwright's "The Homecoming."
But while it remains controversial it also remains extraordinarily worth seeing, if only to make your own mind up about it. First tip - forget Samuel Beckett. Second tip - take the play completely at its bizarre face value.
A promising stretch of silence begins the Roundabout Theater Company's revival of Harold Pinter's ''Caretaker,'' which stars Patrick Stewart and Kyle MacLachlan. Of course, there would be silence, wouldn't there, this being a Pinter play.
But there are ways and then there are ways to be still on a stage. And the young man sitting on the edge of a bed when the curtain rises on David Jones's dutiful, generally uninvolving production, which opened last night at the American Airlines Theater, knows exactly how to fill the quiet.
Even before he stirs an eyelid, this unidentified figure in a black leather jacket -- played by Aidan Gillen, in a smashing Broadway debut -- emanates the subliminal hum of an electric generator. With his long, pale face frozen in enigmatic reverie, it seems equally possible that he's thinking about a long-ago afternoon with a lovely girl or the best way of disposing of an inconvenient body.
This wordless, motionless vignette, which lasts perhaps 20 seconds, is an ideal introduction to the world of ''The Caretaker,'' a story of two brothers and an elderly derelict in close quarters, in which everything that's said and not said can be understood in all sorts of contradictory ways. Unfortunately, as this production proceeds, you begin to suspect that it has already played its ace.
It's not that Mr. Gillen is an innately better actor than his more famous co-stars: Mr. MacLachlan, known for his peerless deadpan quirkiness in David Lynch's ''Blue Velvet'' and ''Twin Peaks,'' and the formidable Mr. Stewart, who proved himself at home on the classical stage long before he assumed captain's duties on ''Star Trek.''
But of the three, only Mr. Gillen is fluent in the language of ambiguity that is the currency of Pinterland. His presence is at once sharp and shifting, his tight little smile an uncertain balance of cruel and kindly intentions.
''I can take nothing you say at face value,'' Mr. Gillen says at one point to Mr. Stewart. For ''The Caretaker'' to unsettle audiences as it did four decades ago, this accusation should characterize each of the three men who inhabit the detritus-cluttered room where the play is set. And while Mr. MacLachlan and Mr. Stewart have isolated moments of dramatic strength, their performances are largely one-note.
All right, let's be fair: two-note, even three. But with any Pinter character, there has to be the sense of an entire muddled symphony of identities going on inside.
''The Caretaker'' is the work that finally put Mr. Pinter over with the establishment critics who didn't much appreciate his ''Birthday Party'' the year before. Debates raged in the early 1960's about the play's social and symbolic significance. The West End playwright Terence Rattigan saw its three characters as the holy trinity made flesh, while the critic Kenneth Tynan thought they corresponded to the ego, superego and id.
Mr. Pinter dismisses such readings. ''I feel very strongly about the particular, not about symbolism,'' he has said. And it's the human specificity of the play, with its haunted echoes of failed attempts at communication and connection, that gives ''The Caretaker'' its enduring ability to disturb. It is also, for a work perceived as avant-garde, masterfully built by classical standards. You can see why an old-fashioned craftsman like Noël Coward found much to admire in it.
Mr. Jones, who directed Mr. Pinter's ''No Man's Land'' for the Roundabout in 1994, clearly appreciates this structural intelligence. The play's form is dictated by the power struggle that develops when Aston (Mr. MacLachlan) brings a homeless tramp, Davies (Mr. Stewart), back to the shabby house in West London owned by his entrepreneurial younger brother, Mick (Mr. Gillen).
This production stays conscientiously true to the script's stage directions, from its junkshoplike bedroom of a set (designed by John Lee Beatty and lighted by Peter Kaczorowski) to the physical positions of the actors.
It makes its points and lands its jokes as lucidly as a series of vaudeville sketches. The audience laughs happily as the characters trump one another with their pointed non sequiturs. There's an impeccably choreographed Abbott-and-Costello-style bit in which the three men struggle for possession of a suitcase. But the dissonant music heard between scenes suggests the production is also striving for a darker complexity it rarely achieves.
As Davies, Mr. Stewart plays Pinter as if it were Dickens. (He has done a swell one-man interpretation of ''A Christmas Carol.'') He's a grand old bum, as seigneurial in Aston's digs as, in Dickens, Little Dorrit's snobbish jailbird of a father. The geriatric mannerisms -- the tremor in the voice, the shortness of breath -- seem affected, as if he might throw them off any second, like the oddly biblical-looking coat he wears for his entrance. (Jane Greenwood is the costume designer.)
While not every Davies needs to go to the scrofulous extremes that Michael Gambon did in the acclaimed London revival of two years ago, he does have to register as dirty, desperate and potentially dangerous. Mr. Stewart conveys the sense of this, with his artfully inflected gestures and line readings, but not the sensibility. While he rises to flashes of scorching malice in the third act, he's basically a straight man for the brothers. And you never think -- as you must -- that Davies is ever in control.
As the slow-thinking Aston, MacLachlan has a poignantly shy smile and air of fractured pride. But you feel, as you do with Mr. Stewart, that what you see is what you get, not a recipe for success in interpreting Pinter. It's almost impossible now to make Aston's second-act monologue, where he describes his stay in a mental institution, not sound like an earnest audition piece, which is indeed how it comes across here.
With his teddy-boy swagger and cheaply perfumed language, Mick (a role originated by Alan Bates) has always been the flashiest part as well as the smallest. Mr. Gillen runs with it, leading with his pelvis and cocked chin, but he is never merely a slick thug. When this Mick goes into his salesman's spiel, talking about real estate or interior decorating, he begins cynically and concludes sentimentally, as if hypnotized by his own language.
This fellow has a vulnerable underbelly, as all Pinter characters do, that's a target for predators. But because Mr. Gillen is the only cast member who conveys Pinteresque confusion with conviction and precision, Mick never loses the upper hand.
The triangle of power in ''The Caretaker'' is supposed to keep audiences off balance by reconfiguring itself again and again. In this version, it is a fixed and terminally lopsided geometric figure.
'The Caretaker" was Harold Pinter's first smash - first in London in 1960, with a talented lad named Alan Bates, transferring intact to Broadway and, soon after, to film. "The Birthday Party" had been produced in 1957, but was famously loathed by the English press and closed almost before it opened.
Thus, it was "The Caretaker" that first identified "Pinteresque" as an adjective for things menacing, ambiguous, playful and armed with the unsettling arsenal of silent pauses. Yet, oddly enough, the wondrously creepy tragicomedy has not been staged here since the Roundabout Theatre Company did one Off- Broadway 22 years ago.
That same company - now a major institution and Broadway showcase - revived the theatrical milestone last night. David Jones' respectful production has Patrick Stewart as the old bum, Davies, the role created by Donald Pleasance. There is also Kyle MacLachlan in his impressive New York theater debut as Aston, the stranger of the two strange brothers who inhabit the attic mess of a west London house.
This should have been a crackling highlight of the hectic fall season. But Jones' direction is curiously slack. The three-act structure, presented as written with two intermissions, feels dragged out and decompressed. Jones, the British director who staged a similarly unremarkable revival of Pinter's "No Man's Land" for the Roundabout in 1993, slicks up the delicious dryness with (uncredited) dissonant music between the scenes, amplifies the sound of the dripping roof as if this were a cheesy fright film and makes us feel conventionally manipulated rather than seduced. Instead of watchful stillness, we get effects.
Stewart, so convincing as the attractively monstrous bigamist in Arthur Miller's "The Ride Down Mt. Morgan," seems awfully robust and self-loving now as Davies - a limitation that brings an actorly artificiality to Pinter's unsettling pecking-order power play. This tramp, invited back by the seemingly kind Aston and abused by his scary brother Mick, does all the appropriate scratching and complaining and tottering around in his grimy long underwear.
But we should be able to imagine we smell what Aston smells about the guy, just as we need to believe that, just possibly, he might manage to slide himself into Mick's confidence. Davies, after all, is a man who doesn't know who he is. For all his bluff, bigotry and vanity, we lose the tension if he seems manicured to look poor.
Still, this is vintage Pinter, whose liberating cruelty has been described by John Guare as "like some horrible relative you need to know." MacLachlan, who was equally formidable co-starring with Woody Harrelson in London a few seasons ago, really is a stage creature. From "Twin Peaks" to "Sex and the City," the actor always had suggested a secret interior life beyond the words. The quality translates with eerie grace to live Pinter.
Aidan Gillen is nasty and amusing as Mick - the role created by Bates. This is one of Pinter's unpredictable working- class tenors and Gillen, an English actor new to Manhattan, obviously understands the slinky violence under the pale skin. He keeps his upper body still and stalks with his legs, a presence that suggests the emotional contradictions of an Irish folk dancer.
John Lee Beatty's attic set is meticulously supplied with the junk of other people's lives, though we miss the feeling that lives are closing in on these people. Jane Greenwood's costumes have a shabby expertise.
"Caretaker" was not included in the Lincoln Center Festival's unforgettable Pinter Festival in 2001, presumably because Michael Gambon was expected on Broadway with a celebrated London production.
Our loss. Still, as Pinter has said, "Life is more mysterious than plays make it out to be." Even in a less than marvelous production, he can still fill a catch of the breath or a simple pause with more humanity than most writers can drum up with hours of breast beating. We'll take what we can get.
You don't have to be an authority on Harold Pinter to know that the seemingly trivial, meandering conversation at the start of The Caretaker is laying ground for more pointed and profound reflection.
In the Roundabout Theatre Company's revival of Caretaker (*** out of four), which opened Sunday at Broadway's American Airlines Theatre, the emotional and psychological scope of Pinter's 1959 play is mirrored by the vastness of the stage. The West London flat fashioned by set designer John Lee Beatty is sprawling in its squalor, posing a marked contrast to the claustrophobic relationships depicted in this scathing black comedy.
The two brothers who live here are, we discover, equally dissimilar. Mick is sharp and manic, while elder sibling Aston seems dimwitted and almost preternaturally mild. It isn't until more than halfway through the play that we learn the dark secret behind Aston's demeanor. Those who don't already know or can't glean anything about his past may find the first two acts perplexing and slow-moving at times.
Luckily, the bracing performances in this production ensure that those moments are few and far between. Under David Jones' vigorous direction, Patrick Stewart, Kyle MacLachlan and Aidan Gillen capture the humor, suspense and pathos in Pinter's script and drive home his message about the dynamics that bind and threaten to strangle human beings, however disparate their troubles.
Stewart plays Davies, an aging tramp whom Aston drags home in an act of charity that both he and Mick will come to regret. Davies is a tricky character, one who inspires our pity and grudging admiration even as his capacity for deception and cruelty becomes increasingly apparent. Perhaps it's the unappetizing look of his surroundings, but Stewart shows none of his usual proclivity for scenery chewing; his nuanced portrait never reduces Davies to the cartoon character he could easily become in less capable hands.
Gillen, similarly, refuses to play Mick as a flamboyant clown. Signs of a sure intelligence and active conscience poke through his droll quips and flashes of violence early on. Later, when the turmoil underlying Mick's frustration with and devotion to his brother is revealed, Gillen potently evinces his repressed guilt and rage.
MacLachlan has the toughest assignment of all as Aston, whose haunted emotions and generous, noble spirit must register through a dull, almost blank veneer. The actor deftly handles the play's most riveting scene, in which Aston tells Davies of the harrowing experience that essentially ruined his life, if not his strength of character. And MacLachlan makes that strength deeply felt, so that for all of Aston's misfortune, we never view him as someone who has given up on life.
Clearly, though he was likened to other absurdist writers such as Ionesco and Beckett, the young Pinter had a pragmatist's sense of survival.