Centerstage Artistic Director Irene Lewis goes out with a bang with a wickedly scabrous production of Harold Pinter’s The Homecoming, the final show directed by Miss Lewis after a 20-year stewardship.
There are few things in the theater more savory than watching people behaving horribly toward one another. That was the acrid appeal of the recent play August: Osage County, which showed a modern American family imprisoned in fear and resentment by a manipulative matriarch. The Homecoming is the granddaddy of this and other slice-of-putrid-life domestic dramas. Written in 1965, Mr. Pinter’s play may seem tame in its allusions to sexual deviations and colorful, rather than profane, invective. Yet, more than 40 years later, The Homecoming’s mixture of dark humor and blistering honesty still provokes and makes us profoundly uncomfortable.
Miss Lewis does not shy away from the prickly aspects of The Homecoming and her assured production takes the audience on an unpredictable journey where we find ourselves laughing at the most shocking things and unable to turn away from this family in East End London undergoing a shattering reunion.
The production offers little in the way of comfort or reassurance. Mark McCullough lights the living room set in a harsh florescent glare and set designer Riccardo Hernandez populates the cavernous space with god-awful striped wallpaper and furniture that is not shabby chic, just shabby. Catherine Zuber’s costumes reveal the sharp edges of the ordinary—rarely have grandpa sweaters or cardigan sets looked so threatening.
This is a house long without a woman’s presence, filled with single men used to skulking around like savages. When the patriarch, Max (Jarlath Conroy), a retired butcher who now uses words like a meat cleaver, asks his son Lenny (Trent Dawson) about the location of some scissors, the young man placidly replies “Don’t talk to me, you daft prat” while never lifting his eyes from the newspaper.
From his tired easy chair, Max rules the roost, which is not exactly the place of kings. Lenny is a pimp who, with an impish adolescent gleam, tells stories about women that always manage to end with a violent denouement. Younger sibling Joey (Sebastian Naskaris) is a visibly punchdrunk amateur boxer who also does demolition work. Sam (Laurence O’Dwyer), a chauffeur, subtly tucks into himself when his brother Max launches barrages of abuse that attack his manhood.
Into this claustrophobic, predatory scene walks eldest son Teddy (Stephen Epp), who fled to America to become a philosophy professor long ago. Accompanying him is his wife Ruth (Felicity Jones), whom no one in the family has known about.
While Teddy alternately seeks his father’s approval and frantically searches for an escape hatch, the cool and calculating Ruth masterminds a power struggle. She uses her considerable sexual sway—both insinuating and literal—to unsettle Max and the rest of the males in the house. When the curtain rises for Act Two, the men are following Ruth around like puppies, an absurdist comic touch.
Even when Max blithely suggests that Ruth stay on and pay for her keep by becoming a prostitute, Ruth considers the proposition with unsettling calm. They may “put her on the game,” but no one in the family will really touch her, ever really get to her. Miss Jones is magnificent as Ruth, a classy beauty who crosses and uncrosses her legs and stalks across the carpet on high heels with the silken menace of a Hitchcock heroine. She plays Ruth as an ice queen, but also gives hints of dissatisfaction and sadness lurking beneath the frost.
As her main adversary, Mr. Conroy lends a disarming naturalness to Mr. Pinter’s barbed dialogue, spewing vitriol as if making small talk about flowers. His nastiness is so persuasive you can actually see how it plays out in the rest of the family—in Lenny’s buoyant cruelty, in Joey’s sexual opportunism, in Sam’s careful avoidance.
No one in The Homecoming is anything close to sympathetic, but glints of humanity can be seen in Mr. O’Dwyer’s affecting portrait of a career coward who holds deadly secrets and Mr. Epp’s empathetic portrayal of a proudly overeducated man who resents his working class roots but is ultimately undone by them.
Mr. Pinter’s lacerating prose and shrapnel-like characters cut straight to the bone. We may not like what we see, or like that we see ourselves in The Homecoming, but we cannot turn away from its brutal truths about the degree of violence present in every household.
by Harold Pinter
Directed by Irene Lewis
Produced by Centerstage
Reviewed by Jayne Blanchard
Running time: Approximately 2 hours and 10 minutes with one 15-minute intermission