Like many trendy plays of the late '50s and early '60s, those of Harold Pinter depended on the audience filling in the gaps conveniently left by the playwright. This made his works ideal fodder for critics, graduate students and snobs.
The Roundabout's revival of "The Homecoming" made me wonder how much of the importance we accorded these plays was due to our vaunted sense of how brilliantly we had filled in the blanks.
When these plays first arrived, they were enveloped in a cloud of hocus-pocus. They were British, of course, which immediately made them very important.
The self-importance of the acting also carried great weight with us colonials. One problem with the revival, directed by Gordon Edelstein, is that the actors do not supplement their characterizations with the proper sort of intimidating pretension.
In fact the performances are surprisingly jovial. They lack menace. If Pinter's plays are about anything, it is the ominousness beneath the placid surface of everyday life. Without menace, the plays seem jocular and trivial. The violence in this "Homecoming" often has a Monty Python absurdity to it.
In the pivotal role of the grotesque father, Roy Dotrice is expansive and charming. But he never makes us believe the depth of the sadism behind the inane endearments he halfheartedly mouths to his family.
(When I filled in the blanks 25 years ago I saw the play as a re-creation of the primordial family, with the father who wants to devour his offspring as in ancient mythology. As you can see, I had an energetic and intellectually pretentious turn of mind. Now that I'm middle-aged and intellectually sluggish I wish Pinter had justified this reading half as aggressively as I did.)
Lindsay Crouse has so much swagger as the one woman in this masculine enclave that we cannot see her encounters with the men as acts of violation, which might make the play unsettling. As her husband, Jonathan Hogan also takes the cruelty of his childhood home a bit too much in stride. Daniel Gerroll has a chilling elegance as the more sinister of the brothers, Reed Diamond a troubling vulnerability as the boxing brother, and John Horton is genuinely disquieting as the pathetic uncle.
Neither time nor this production has made the play seem deeper.
What kind of homecoming can Harold Pinter's now virtually classic play "The Homecoming" expect on Broadway almost a quarter of century after its giddily controversial Broadway premiere?
Last night, whether New York was ready or not, it returned at the Roundabout Theater, which, in passing, I salute for embarking on the great adventure of its first Broadway season, having just taken occupation of the obviously entirely suitable Criterion Center. Best of luck, and may you never need it.
In the 25 years since "The Homecoming" first stirred the waters, Pinter's reputation has wavered - his stage output has become sparse, while his energies have been partly absorbed by screenwriting and the staging of other people's plays. Yet his three major works, "The Birthday Party," "The Caretaker" and this one, "The Homecoming," continue to puzzle, fascinate and even enthrall long after their time in modish fashion's spotlight has passed.
At the very least they are beautifully crafted, and even their denigrators (an expanding breed as the fashion switches) must pay tribute to their challenging seriousness. These macabre comedies of alienation cannot be easily shuffled off. They shock, they pain, they encourage reaction.
And the most shocking is "The Homecoming" - it is outrageous and disturbing, whether it is taken as a bad dream or a worse metaphor. Even if you hate this play, you will hate it an awful lot.
I admire it greatly - but always more on reflection than in performance, always more intellectually than emotionally. I felt this when it was new in Peter Hall's extraordinarily well-nuanced production the first time round, and I feel it once more now. Its shocks are those of a depth charge rather than a land mine.
The plot is simple. The scene is North London, some time around the writing of the play, the mid '60s. The seedy, old house belongs to a testy and scabrous retired butcher, Max, a 70-year-old widower, who lives with two of his sons, Lenny and Joey, and a brother, Sam, chauffeur for a car-hire firm.
Now, his eldest son, Teddy, a university professor, returns on an unannounced visit after a six-year absence, while teaching philosophy in America. He brings with him Ruth, his wife, also English, who, although the family has never met her, went out with him to the States.
Funnily enough it proves more of a homecoming for Ruth than Teddy. After a series of outrageous encounters she, at the end, finds herself ensconced as a sort of Oedipal mother-figure to the family - all except Teddy who returns to America and their three sons in some cool mixture of huffiness and relief - taking care of their sexual needs, and even adding to family income by working part-time as a prostitute, under the aegis of the middle son, Lenny, who, it transpires, is a pimp.
I make no apologies this time for telling the story - it will remain shocking, and will either strain or break your credulity, or leave that credulity irrelevant.
The play needs to be done absolutely straightforward with a minimum of interpretation or stagecraft - the actors must simply believe in who they are, where they are and where they've been.
Like the original production in 1965, the Roundabout Theater, which has had a long association with Pinter, goes right to the heart of the unvarnished matter. Gordon Edelstein's staging seems scrupulously unaffected, as does John Arnone's handsomely bleak setting, which echoes John Bury's original RSC set without copying it, and the superb cast.
Roy Dotrice, as the crazy, vicious father, is more crazy and more vicious than was the ironically paternalistic Paul Rogers in the original, and his family, Daniel Gerroll as the sharply abrasive pimp, Lenny, Jonathan Hogan as the detached, complaisant Teddy, Reed Diamond as the youngest and dimmest son, Joey, and John Horton as the weakly dignified brother, Sam, are all, in their own ways, impeccable.
Finally there is Lindsay Crouse as the mysterious, sensuous Lilith-figure of Ruth, who quite wonderfully measures up to the memories of the late Vivien Merchant, whose enigmatic presence once cast such a spell on the play. Crouse too, lives convincingly with the impossible, and permits us to suspend churlish disbelief.
When Harold Pinter's cryptic family play "The Homecoming" reached Broadway in early 1967, American audiences had fun poring over every line, arguing about what, if anything, its terse lines, elliptical pauses and curious, possibly amoral, sexual gestures could possibly mean.
Such orgiastic textual debate was the fashion of the day, especially in regard to cultural imports with a British accent. "Blow Up," the Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni's enigmatic film reverie about mod London, had caused similar arguments in the months before the Pinter play arrived, and the Beatles' "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" would follow a few months later, sending young and old alike into brooding contemplation of how many holes it takes to fill the Albert Hall.
The current Broadway revival of "The Homecoming," the Roundabout Theater Company's first attraction at its new home in the Criterion Center, is only a block from the Music Box, the site of the original production in 1967. But it might as well be playing on another planet, so changed is the cultural context. The Pinter revolution against theatrical literal-mindedness has long since been fought and won. In a world where David Lynch can work in prime-time television and David Mamet can write Hollywood movies, what audiences are going to be baffled by the meaning of "The Homecoming"?
Now everyone knows that what you see is what you get with any work that aspires to be Pinteresque, whether written by Mr. Pinter or not. In the case of "The Homecoming," an expatriate philosophy professor, Teddy, returns from America with his wife, Ruth, to the gloomy, all-male North London household shared by his 70-year-old father, his uncle and his two younger brothers. A series of malevolent games of conquer-and-destroy ensue, in which the men battle one another and Ruth for supremacy. At stake are not only the territorial domains within a family, but also the eternal balance of power between the sexes. The mysterious Ruth, at once madonna and whore, rekindles her hosts' conflicted memories of their dead matriarch even as she arouses their entrepreneurial instincts in the field of prostitution.
Gordon Edelstein's able staging of the piece for the Roundabout is very faithful to the Peter Hall original, down to the famous Act II opening in which the lighting of cigars becomes a parodistic tribal ritual. Yet "The Homecoming" plays differently now that the aura of mystery and shock that once surrounded it is gone. The nastiness and humor come through, but not the terror.
Perhaps this is a shortcoming that time has exposed in Mr. Pinter's play, but it may also be a function of a couple of crucial casting lapses in Mr. Edelstein's otherwise solid production. As the sole female character, Lindsay Crouse tries to suggest a damaged soul beneath her cool demeanor, but neither her diligent acting nor her tartish poses and makeup can make her Ruth ruthless -- a mesmerizing, manipulative queen bee capable of bringing brutal men to their knees. Jonathan Hogan, as her husband, is further off-key, a petulant rather than fierce antagonist to the siblings and the father who would destroy him. Since Ruth and Teddy amount to one of the two major camps in the play's internal warfare, the default of these performances inevitably deflates the evening's tension.
But the gallows humor that remains is sometimes reward enough, starting with that to be found in John Arnone's bleak house of a set: The windows look out on nothing (except the lighting designer Peter Kaczorowski's heavy winter dusk), and the dark walls, floor and furniture are in a state of advanced decay. Roy Dotrice's fine turn as the father, Max, is the perfect centerpiece for this hellish household. Grizzly in appearance, with a gangster's lethal cackle to match, the actor spews malice. His paternal smiles are so sinister that his teeth all seem to be incisors.
Mr. Dotrice's facetious way with his lines accentuates just how much the playwright's insult humor recalls old-time cockney vaudeville. Max's every expression of family feeling takes on a twisted meaning, whether he is asking for "a cuddle and kiss" or speaking with supposed nostalgia of his late wife. ("She wasn't such a bad woman. Even though it made me sick just to look at her rotten stinking face.") As Lenny, the predatory pimp among his sons, Daniel Gerroll becomes the straight man in a grotesque comedy team, matching each of Mr. Dotrice's insults with a well-timed sneer. It is also Mr. Gerroll's duty to deliver Lenny's ostensibly funny monologues, extended anecdotes of deranged misogyny that the actor fields with just the right note of appalling, deadpan detachment.
While the production markedly sags whenever these two actors are not at center stage, there is also first-rate work in smaller roles, from John Horton as Uncle Sam, a ludicrously class-conscious chauffeur whose onstage collapse is farcically ignored by his relatives, and Reed Diamond as the hollow-eyed Joey, the brother with pugilistic ambitions unlikely to be realized in the professional boxing ring. For this family, violence begins at home, where animalistic brawls over power are fought to the death and not even the fittest can necessarily survive. Although time has rendered Mr. Pinter's message considerably less obscure and startling than it once was, his writing still seems so mean that, even after all these years, a sentimental "Homecoming" is out of the question.