It was not only the return of Harold Pinter's obliquely mysterious "The Homecoming" after its 1967 premiere, last night's opening at the Cort Theatre also marked a homecoming of sorts for its star, Ian McShane.
It is also 40 years ago since McShane made his Broadway debut in "The Promise," by a Soviet writer, Axel Abruzov. It ran for less than three weeks.
Until now McShane, here in the after-glow of American TV fame as the foul-mouthed Al Swearengen in the HBO series "Deadwood," never returned.
Welcome back, however belated! He remains a marvelous, compelling actor.
Unlike McShane, this is the third Broadway outing for "The Homecoming," but it is the first cast, led also by Eve Best and Raul Esparza, to match completely the raw excitement of the play's very first trio, in both London and New York: Paul Rogers, Vivian Merchant and Ian Holm.
"The Homecoming" is often called "a comedy of menace," and the director Daniel Sullivan has here wisely made sure that the comedy, essentially the cheerful insolence of the English music hall, shares equal billing with the menace.
The play is an exercise - and here comes the menace - in a great deal of ambiguity and disquieting nuance. Every character seems to say the opposite and to do the opposite to what he earlier said or did. It's as confusing as life itself on a bad day.
And Pinter darts around his own play like a puzzled horsefly, never quite knowing where it, or he, is going next. Which is oddly exciting, keeping you, as it were, upside down on the edge of the underside of your theater seat.
The title "The Homecoming" at first seems to apply to Teddy (James Frain), an English philosophy professor at an American university who, with his English wife of six years, Ruth (Best), unexpectedly turns up late at night at his father's working-class home in North London.
In fact, as the play meanders along its murky, sleazy spirals, it is clearly the calculating Ruth who is coming back - back to her spiritual home as Earth Mother/Madonna/Whore to this sprawling Cockney household of men.
This consists of Teddy's father, Max (McShane), a retired butcher, by turn scurrilous, bullying and unctuous; Teddy's two brothers, Lenny (Esparza), a cool and cocksure pimp, and Joey (Gareth Saxe), a slow aspiring boxer, already slightly punch-drunk, and finally Max's brother, Sam (Michael McKean), a seemingly decent and thus generally bewildered chauffeur.
By the end of the play Ruth is happily installed as mistress of the household, Teddy is on his way back to the United States and the three sons (for Pinter loves symmetry almost as much as incongruity) he and Ruth left behind. Sam is left prostrate on the floor, possibly dead, possibly merely stricken by a heart attack and a Pinter-style pause.
It's a fascinating and entertaining piece, but the play, 40 years on, has not worn as well as I would have expected. Once Pinter was generally regarded as a possible successor to Samuel Beckett in nihilistic existentialism. Now he seems a markedly lesser talent.
Yet it's difficult to imagine an all-over better cast or a more persuasive reading; led by McShane's ugly and embittered patriarch, Esparza's smoothly confident Lenny, Frain's shiftily ambivalent Teddy and the wonderful Best, whose smugly conspiratorial smile, caps the play's ending.
First of all, it really is that good. You would expect it to have shrunk over the years, the way buildings that loomed large in your childhood seem smaller when you revisit them. But as the first-rate revival that opened Sunday night at the Cort Theater makes electrifyingly clear, “The Homecoming” is every bit as big as its reputation.
Forty years after its Broadway debut titillated and outraged American theatergoers, this Harold Pinter masterpiece of family warfare continues to unsettle. It’s not the play’s sexual content or the blood-drawing viciousness of the clan it portrays. After all, since “The Homecoming” first opened, kinfolk in kitchen-sink dramas, including the current hit “August: Osage County,” have regularly provided far more explicitly detailed catalogs of their hatreds and perversions.
But like most great art “The Homecoming” operates on a mythic as well as an immediate level. It insists that some shadowy part of you is part of it. It burrows under you skin and festers.
Mr. Pinter, you see, knows where you live. “The Homecoming” conveys this knowledge by stealth and, more often than not, by stillness. And the fine cast assembled for Daniel Sullivan’s new production — including Eve Best and Raúl Esparza in benchmark performances — grasps the power of holding back in making a fathoms-deep impression.
The timing for this “Homecoming,” the first play by Mr. Pinter on Broadway since he won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2005, is ideal, and not just because it’s the 40th anniversary of its New York premiere. It’s December, remember? The month when children of all ages return to the family hearth and often get burned.
You may initially think you have little in common with the North London household headed by the scabrous Max (Ian McShane). But you soon start to sense a disquieting familiarity in the patterns of domestic friction.
Come on, don’t tell me that when you go home, or when relatives visit you, there aren’t clashes over who does the dishes, who ate the last snack, who goes to bed first, who sits in the most comfortable chair, whose memories of your shared past are the truth. These small battles of one-upmanship are the fabric of existence for Max; his brother, Sam (Michael McKean); and Max’s two grown sons who still live with him, Lenny (Mr. Esparza) and Joey (Gareth Saxe).
The stakes rise, as they will when a long-absent relative returns, when Teddy (James Frain), a professor of philosophy living in the States, shows up in the middle of the night with his wife, Ruth (Ms. Best). Who’s top dog now? The claim to that title is ultimately fought in ways I hope will never be visited upon your family.
That doesn’t mean that the play’s uncomfortable universality goes away. Mr. Pinter’s particular brilliance is in sliding imperceptibly from the ordinary surface to the primal darkness of what lies beneath.
The nigh-perfect form of “The Homecoming,” as the critic Penelope Gilliatt wrote when it opened in London in 1965, is in “the swaying of violent people as they gain minute advantages.” That dynamic, which propels most of Mr. Pinter’s plays, is seldom successfully realized in American productions. (Recent Broadway revivals of Pinter plays I love, like “Betrayal” and “The Caretaker,” left me cold.)
That’s partly because English class accents are important in landing the cadences (and establishing the balance of power) in Mr. Pinter’s famously pause-pocked dialogue. It is also no easy matter for any actor to find the character-defining noise in Mr. Pinter’s silences. Playing Pinter requires repressing the urge to act actively. Mr. Sullivan’s cast keeps the lid on itself so impressively that when eruptions occur, you feel you’ve been sucker-punched.
Such restraint is especially remarkable in Mr. Esparza, who made his reputation as one of the showiest actors in town (“The Normal Heart,” “Taboo”). For this year’s revival of the musical “Company” he learned to stand still, with gratifying results. That didn’t prepare me for the intricate layers he brings to the entrepreneurial Lenny.
With only minor adjustments of facial expression and vocal inflection, Mr. Esparza conveys a multitude of impulses, simmering in coexistence. In a breath he suggests a petulant adolescent, an icy killer, a take-charge businessman and an infant who only wants Mommy. His is the most visibly needy Lenny I’ve encountered. But this extra transparency never cancels out the enigma at the core of all Pinter characters.
The same can be said of Ms. Best, a much-lauded London stage actress who made her Broadway debut this year opposite Kevin Spacey in “A Moon for the Misbegotten.” This fine-boned actress did wonders then in expanding to fill a part that calls for a “giantess.” Here she’s an absolute knockout.
Ruth is the most fraught of the roles, a sphinxlike woman who has been defined by critics as both a feminist and a misogynistic creation. But like Mr. Esparza, Ms. Best lends her character the sense of a complete emotional history that I’d never grasped before. In the company of men Ruth is as guarded and calculated as they come, calmly registering disapproval and amused contempt with the merest lowering of her eyelids.
But there are a couple of moments, when she thinks no one is watching, when this Ruth reveals the weary, wistful face beneath the sang-froid. You sense she wishes that the rules of the game she must play were different. As it is, she still trumps the competition.
Mr. McKean, who became famous as a comic television and film actor, gives a beautifully calibrated, heartbreaking performance as the proper, dutiful Sam. And the relatively unknown Mr. Saxe and Mr. Frain are superb as the dopey, brawny Joey and the disdainful, uxorious Teddy. Like their fellow cast members they give archetypal characters revelatory and particularizing shading.
Mr. McShane (known as the ace expletive-spitter of television’s “Deadwood”) is also excellent, with one caveat. He seems too robust for a decaying man who knows his virility is waning. He is dazzling, though, in switching between scorching venom and synthetic sentimentality.
Pretty much every detail is in correct place in this production, including Eugene Lee’s cozy minefield of a living room and Jess Goldstein’s class-situating costumes. It’s clear we’re in the middle of the 1960s, but the view is not through a telescope.
People who were originally put off by “The Homecoming” may now find it too close to home. It’s a bit like Picasso’s shockingly severe painting of Gertrude Stein from 1906, the one he predicted in time would resemble its subject. We may not have thought we saw ourselves in “The Homecoming” four decades ago. Now it feels like a mirror.
Cole Porter was wrong. Then again, he wasn't thinking of Harold Pinter when he observed in "Anything Goes" that what was once considered shocking could be softened into innocuousness by the passing of a few decades. In "The Homecoming," his enigmatic 1965 masterwork about power and desire, Pinter aimed to leave his audience unsure, unsettled, stimulated and appalled. That result is undimmed in Daniel Sullivan's diamond-edged Broadway revival. The director's lucid, unblinking work is matched by a riveting ensemble, their vileness inching under the skin in ways as psychologically disturbing as they are theatrically bracing.
Sullivan steers away from the trap of over-interpreting Pinter. This is a cryptic play in which every chiseled line is loaded and every sculpted silence even more so. But its capacity to mesmerize lies in its mystery. We watch the characters unleash unspeakable emotional violence upon each other, their mean-spirited, manipulative behavior rooted in histories and pathologies made all the more unnerving by being merely suggested. But even while withholding a full understanding of what drives the characters' actions, the play confronts its audience with the uncomfortable truth that there's a little of their base, animalistic cunning in all of us.
What we do know is that something profoundly unwholesome permeates the old North London house shared by four men, rendered here by designer Eugene Lee as a place where the walls, the carpets and the faded furniture all reek of decay and neglect.
Into that environment steps Teddy (James Frain), a philosophy professor at an American college who returns after a six-year absence with wife Ruth (Eve Best) to visit his childhood home. Bad move. "Why don't we have a nice cuddle and kiss, eh?" says Teddy's father Max (Ian McShane), a retired butcher. "Like the old days?" The menace, resentment and oblique hints of past sexual abuse that hang thickly in the air make it clear paternal affection is not on the menu.
No less ambiguous is the welcome extended by Teddy's brothers, dapper Soho pimp Lenny (Raul Esparza) and doltish mouth-breather Joey (Gareth Saxe), an aspiring boxer. Only Max's brother Sam (impeccably understated Michael McKean) seems genuinely fond of his nephew. A chauffeur pathetically gratified by the patronizing endorsements of his wealthy American clients, Sam is the only person on stage with more than a shred of humanity but in this company, that translates as crippling weakness.
With a malevolent glint in his eye and that deep growl of a voice spewing both veiled insults and vicious antagonisms, McShane's Max is not entirely unrelated to his magnificently heartless Al Swearengen from HBO's "Deadwood." The fundamental difference is the aging Max's awareness of his diminishing rule. Even as he wields his walking stick like a truncheon, his anger seems fueled by the certainty that his strength is fading. Rotten to the core, Max is a tremendous role and McShane bites into it with glistening fangs.
Ready to challenge Max on every front is smug, sneering Lenny, played by Esparza not as a physical bully but a psychological one. This approach is especially effective in Lenny's extended monologues, in his initial cat-and-mouse game with Ruth and in his sickening boasts about brutalizing other women.
But it appears the right to rule the house and sit in the most comfortable chair might end up going to neither Max nor Lenny once Ruth clocks how best to milk the set-up to her own advantage. Refining a simple blink of her eyes or a subtle sideways shift of her head into an artful slow-motion performance piece, Best's imperturbable outsider has a quality that all five of the men jockeying around her for power or attention lack: She's adaptable.
The mother-whore dichotomy that dictates the male characters' attitude to women here is at its purest in Max, who speaks of his late wife one minute in sainted terms as "the backbone of this family" and as a "slutbitch" the next. Similarly, the horrifying insults he hurls at Ruth by way of a greeting are followed later by praise: "She's a lovely girl. A beautiful woman. And a mother too." Sullivan plays this volatile material to perfection, as evidenced by the uneasiness of the laughter rippling through the audience.
Ruth's intuitive understanding of those conflicting needs -- of how suspicion of her sexual power feeds the men's urge to humiliate and dominate her, but also how their lust and their sad need to be mothered makes them easy prey -- allows her to remain in command, even as Frain's spineless Teddy looks on in festering silence.
To go back to the Cole Porter song, "a glimpse of stocking" plays a key role here, when Ruth takes hold of a wayward philosophical argument about being and not-being. With supreme calm, she reclaims her position at the center of everyone's focus through sly self-objectification. "Look at me," she purrs. "I ... move my leg. That's all it is. But I wear ... underwear ... which moves with me ... it ... captures your attention."
In a performance of icy-cool poise made even more arresting because it follows Best's last Broadway appearance as Eugene O'Neill's ungainly cow of a farm girl in "A Moon for the Misbegotten," the scene has a sinister smoothness that makes Sharon Stone's "Basic Instinct" leg-crossing act seem like oafish burlesque.
Regardless of the sordidness of Max and Lenny's plan to exploit Ruth, she never loosens her control of the situation, and her willingness to take such an unlikely avenue out of a mundane life as traditional wife and mother makes her the most complex character onstage. The hypnotic play closes with a pieta tableau in which a satisfied smile spreads slowly across Best's face, leaving little doubt about how the diseased family unit's redistribution of power will play out.