You can tell a lot about the state of modern drama from the seats in BAM’s Harvey Theater, sourced, it would appear, from the chapel in a monastery of penitents. Movie houses boast padded recliners; playgoers sit on wooden postage stamps. Obviously, there’s more money in the silver screen, but that’s not the only thing at work. Backsides can be punished here because the stage is meant to transcend mere entertainment. The hard, tiny seats hint at a piousness that does the theater no good at all, and which, dare I say, was always part of Harold Pinter’s sensibility.
Pinter wrote The Caretaker (in revival through June 17) in 1960, when kitchen sink drama was king of the English stage. In keeping with the period, it is set in a grimy bedroom in a rundown townhouse. The first of the stage lights illuminate Mick (Alex Hassell), with his back to the audience, striking a truculent James Dean pose. But the angry young man, the prototypical protagonist of the era, ducks out the room before Aston and Davies enter, a fool and a tramp respectively, characters emerging from Beckett’s coat pocket.
Jonathan Pryce, who stammered and sweated so endearingly in Terry Gilliam’s Brazil (1985), is Davies. For this role, Pryce has developed a repertoire of verbal and physical tics uncannily familiar to anyone who has ever jumped on an apparently empty subway car during rush hour. (“You stink from arsehole to breakfast time” is one of the play’s choicest lines and shows off Pinter’s gift for working-class British vernacular.) A real pleasure of this production is that whenever another actor is the center of attention, you can always find Pryce elsewhere on stage being quietly but restlessly batshit. His performance is a prodigy of technique and stamina.
The play opens on an act of kindness, as the laconic Aston (Alex Cox), the bedroom’s resident, offers Davies a place to sleep. Of course, this being Pinter, this is not a story of redemption. What follows is a power struggle, as Davies befriends his benefactor’s brother, Mick, and attempts to get Aston evicted. As well as the conflict, what’s really Pinteresque about the play (more so than those famous pauses) is the sense that every character suffers from brain damage. With Aston, this is the literal truth, as we discover. But essentially the play is a struggle between three mad men to determine who is craziest. The general derangement is the downside to Beckett’s dramatic approach, as adopted by Pinter. It’s like watching King Lear without the regal context, as if Lear had spent his whole life on the heath, ranting at the elements. But that’s the basic MO of the Beckett/Pinter approach: you take away everything inessential from the sustenance of simple human life—hobbies, sports, friends, sex, and what have you—to reveal the naked human being. Unfortunately, what they end up with is something less than human. As Lear puts it, “Ask not nature more than nature needs, man’s life were cheap as beasts.”
This is a funny play that’s brilliantly performed, but it won’t easily let the audience forget what they are sitting on.