Gripping physicality, stiff dialogue mark Pinter plays

Last weekend, theater-goers were treated to an evening of Harold Pinter’s work that spanned some 33 years. Director Amanda Keating ’12 chose to display Pinter’s The Lover, written in 1963, alongside Ashes to Ashes, written in 1996. The actors in both pieces appeared together onstage at the beginning and end of the production in montages reminiscent of a cocktail party before the two-play series kicked off with The Lover.

The Lover features a conservative married suburban couple. The wife, Sarah (Aspen Jordan ’11) announces matter-of-factly that her lover is coming to see her. The reticent but snarky husband Richard (Evan Maltby ’11) at first seems unconcerned by her proclamation, but soon begins to interrogate her and at last admits that he too is having an affair – with a whore. Jordan and Maltby each held their own even when coldly conversing in Pinter’s extremely mannered, sometimes unnatural language, though in both plays a bit of rote recitation slipped in. Jordan’s real strength is her shamelessly expressive physicality: for instance, her primping and posing in front of the “mirror” of the audience. Maltby showed his considerable chops when, in the play’s turnabout moment, he has to put on the persona of the “lover” who, as the audience discovers, is merely the husband playing a role with his wife.

Keating chose to give the play an overtone of foreboding as well as comic irony. Indeed, other than a playfully sexual sequence featuring a drum set, there is little space for the whimsical nature of the show amongst the growing menace in Richard’s compulsive roleplaying. It is possible Keating envisioned Richard as a dissociative personality, but it wasn’t clear whether his antics were roleplay or a disorder. Either way, I would have preferred a more natural rhythm.

The Lover is a play that can take a direction either light-hearted or a grave, but even with the actors in seething emotional straitjackets it has its moments of levity; indeed, Sarah claims her lover has a lovely sense of humor. The lightheartedness didn’t come across as fully as it might have, through no fault of the actors, both of whom were charmingly game. Rather, it is just a little too fast-paced, with just a little too little room to let the whimsy breathe. Maltby hit a few jokes out of the park and Jordan’s pitch-perfect emotional tuning added great depth to tragic and comic moments alike, but the play would have done well on a looser directorial rein.

Once the evening transitioned to Ashes to Ashes this weakness, sadly, became more pervasive. Ashes to Ashes is a serious piece dealing with a man and woman in a hostile relationship and their ambiguously lost infant. Though the play is possibly based on the Holocaust, its interpretation is far from universal. The flavor of Ashes to Ashes is somewhere between husband-and-wife quarrel and therapy session, though the man, Devlin (John Hawthorne ’13) is far too outspoken and aggressive to be a plausible therapist to Rebecca (Holly Crane ’12). Once again the physicality of the play stole the stage. Crane managed particularly impressive poise and expressive expressionlessness. Hawthorne’s comic timing made Devlin’s difficult character likeable.

The actors’ movements were meticulous from the beginning, energizing the otherwise heavily discussion-centered plays. Dialogue delivery, however, was a weakness, both because Pinter’s language is so circuitous and because the actors all seemed coached to recitation rather than expression.

Both plays unwound on a restrainedly nostalgic set, which featured a lavishly upholstered chaise evocative of a therapist’s couch and a table set with a tea service. The women’s costuming, too, differentiated the pieces in time; Sarah wears a little black dress and Rebecca, a shirt and pants (all of the male characters wear suits). The costume difference dates the plays, but ambiguously; you could have seen the plays as two episodes in one couple’s life. I am, however, not sure the sartorial statement was specific enough. Lighting, too, was indifferent, sometimes too slow for the scene changes and overall perhaps overly subtle, though I liked the dimly lit montages that framed both pieces.

Pinter can be a difficult writer to perform onstage. On the whole I found Keating’s approach a little flat-footed and too tightly controlled for my tastes, but certainly both evocative and effective at casting a bridge across four decades in a single night.

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