By Harold Pinter
Produced by Longacre Lea
Directed by Kathleen Akerley
Reviewed by Tim Treanor
The Hothouse belongs to that class of absurd, Kafkaesque plays of which Forum’s excellent production of The Memorandum by Vaclav Havel is the most recent local example. That the ultra-serious and occasionally self-righteous Nobel Laureate Harold Pinter could turn out such a piece should come as no surprise. The House of Absurdity has never been too far from the House of Tragedy.
The Hothouse is set, apparently, in a rest home, in which some sort of therapy is administered to an ill-defined set of patients. Notwithstanding its designation, it is a place where “you are obliged to work and play and join in daily communal activity to the greatest possible extent,” as the slimy Lush (Jonathon Church) tells a mother of one of the home’s unfortunate patients. It is also a place where unspeakable acts of deceit, betrayal and murder proceed apace.
It is also a bureaucracy – which is to say, a place where memos are superior to reality. Thus, the home’s inept, dyspeptic Director Roote (Michael John Casey) rails against the home’s ridiculous practice of referring to patients by arbitrarily assigned numbers – but balks at the suggestion that the practice be reconsidered. “That was one of the rules of procedure laid down in the original constitution,” he explains.
Anyone in Washington understands Pinter precisely on this. Just last week, the Washington Post reported a story in which a woman was clapped into a D.C. men’s prison despite her vehement protests. When she insisted she was a woman, one guard replied, “I know you are – but your identification says you’re a male.” That guard displayed a markedly Pinteresque understanding of how bureaucracy works.
Two incidents disturb the bureaucracy’s equilibrium – one death (to patient 6457) and one birth (to patient 6459). Of the two, the birth is by far the more distressing event. Director Roote must immediately know who on the staff fathered the child, so that he can appear to be in control of his institution. Roote’s Machiavellian number two, Gibbs (Michael Glenn), soon decides to fob blame off on Lamb (Jason Lott), a staffer whose task it is to check the building’s locks periodically. Lamb – his name says everything – is the perfect victim. His anxiety, and his eagerness to please, allows Gibbs and his co-conspirator Cutts (Abby Wood) to steer Lamb anywhere, including to a torture chamber.
There’s more, of course, including a surprisingly moving Christmas address from a half-drunk Roote to the staff and patients and the patients’ ironic response to it, but you catch the drift. Pinter wrote this uncharacteristic piece in 1958 but would not allow it to be produced for twenty-two years. When he finally let it out of his briefcase, Pinter – an excellent comic actor – played Roote himself. His performance earned him comparisons to the brilliant John Cleese, of Monty Python fame.
Director Akerley has a choice with what to do with this material, and she lays it out plainly in her lucid Director’s Notes: “It would be easy, I suspect, to interpret and produce this play in grim, wholesale terms,” she writes. “But I don’t believe in hopelessness and won’t take up your summer evening with a story which only speaks of despair.”
So instead she plays it for laughs. Casey and Lott suffer the most as a result of that decision. Casey comes upon us with full of inexplicable rage and with an orchestra of tics and gestures. Lott, so moving recently in Theater Alliance’s In On It, ratchets up Lamb’s anxiety to Marty Feldman eye-popping levels. Torturing him with electricity seems like carrying coals to Newcastle.
The rest of the cast, with one exception, was similarly over the top. Church’s Lush is written that way, and Church slams into it with lip-smacking gusto. Indeed, it would be impossible to play him otherwise, although it’s hard to imagine that he could have been played any better than Church played him.
On the other hand, Cutts and two secondary characters, Tubb of the under-staff (Daniel Vito Siefring) and the Ministry bureaucrat Lobb (Dylan Pinter) were unnecessarily antic and frequently frantic. Only Gibbs, a character grounded in cold-blooded rationality in the same way as Lush is grounded in wild improvisation, is played at face value, and it makes Glenn’s performance all the more powerful.
Akerley’s approach earned the production laughs on press night, but I can’t help but think that she would have earned even more laughs had she dialed the performances back. Pinter’s dialogue is screamingly funny in places, and what makes it funny is not that the characters are maniacal but that they are oblivious. When, as here, the characters appear to be demented, it’s easy for us in the audience to pretend they aren’t us. When, on the other hand, characters are made oblivious by their own sense of self-importance, or by ambition and lust, the lesson is unavoidable.
Akerley counterbalances what I think was a mistaken approach with several bits of directorial genius, including a superb rendition of the inmates as shadow barbarians at the gate (the shadow statue of “Mike”, the institution’s founder, was particularly funny) and the decision to freeze Roote and Gibbs onstage while Lamb discusses his ambitions with Cutts (a nice juxtaposition of names). And I hasten to add that while the production was deliberately over the top it never exceeded the bounds required by professionalism.
Finally, and best of all for those with unhappy memories of previous Longacre Lea August productions, the company has acquired an effective air conditioner, making the Callan Theatre quite comfortable.
(Running time: 2:10 with one intermission.) The Hothouse runs at Catholic University’s Callen Theatre, 3801 Harewood Rd NE, Wednesdays through Sundays until September 9. Sunday shows are at 2; all other shows are at 7.30. Tickets on Fridays and Saturdays are $18 ($15 for seniors and students); all other shows are $15 ($12 for seniors and students). Reserve tickets here.