Pinter and Chekhov in Brooklyn
Doom and gloom in London and RussiaCAROL ROCAMORA
A well-dressed man stands at a window in a darkened room. Faint light filters in on the squalid scene. Behind him, another man kneels, in rags, begging in vain for shelter and pity. He’ll get neither.
It’s a bleak scene– right out of an Edward Hopper painting, except that’s it’s in a play. A Pinter play. Where else?
Just when we thought the darkness was behind us and some light was dawning, Harold Pinter has returned from the dead with his unforgiving 1960 play, The Caretaker, to remind us that man’s capacity for cruelty is both infinite and enduring.
Pinter provides only three characters, but that’s all he needs to tell his story of man’s inhumanity toward man. The scene is a one-room flat (set in East London, but it could be any bleak urban landscape). The room is a wreck. A tower of newspapers dominates center stage like an altar to urban living. Piles of rubbish surround it— broken appliances, rungless ladders, unwired lamps, rolled rugs, molding mattresses, crumpled clothing.
An air of mystery and tension hangs over this miserable scene as it unfolds. Who is Aston, the man in the business suit? Why does he live there? Why has he invited Davies, an old tramp, in from the cold? And who is the third man, hiding in the closet?
The story begins with a glimmer of hope. Aston offers Davies a place to spend the night. He makes up a bed for him, lends him money, gives him a key to the flat. He even offers him a job as a caretaker for the derelict building. (The reason for the job offer never explained, so we’re left to believe that it’s a simple act of human kindness).
But once Aston leaves, the trouble starts (or the fun, depending how you view the theatre of the absurd). A third character, Mick, jumps out of the closet and begins a terrifying game of cat and mouse that turns nasty. Mick terrorizes the old tramp, interrogating him, beating him, screaming in his ear, chasing him around the apartment with a vacuum cleaner. It’s alternatingly hilarious and harrowing.
Bait and switch
It turns out that the apartment belongs to Mick and Aston, who are brothers. What follows is a violent, triangular game of bait and switch, in which Mick and Aston vie for control over Davies, while Davies in turn tries to use them both for his own ends– namely, a roof over his head, a morsel of food and a pair of shoes.
“He’s no friend of mine,” says Davies to Mick about Aston, betraying the man who had had taken him in, sensing that Mick, his torturer, is the force with whom he should ally instead.
As the power struggle plays itself out, some secrets are revealed. It turns out that Aston has had a mental breakdown and been institutionalized. So the only character in the play capable of human kindness turns out to have been, in effect, lobotomized. What does that say about the hope for human kindness and enduring brotherhood?
Pinter’s bleak landscape offers us three lonely, isolated urban figures, as if they were the last creatures on earth. “We’re all of mankind, whether we like it or not,” says another tramp, Didi, in Beckett’s Waiting for Godot.
But unlike Beckett’s tramps Didi and Gogo, or old Krapp in Krapp’s Last Tape, here there is no possibility of redemption, no glimmer of hope, no promise of sustained human compassion. Pinter’s answer to the Old Testament question: “Am I my brother’s keeper?” (or, in this case, caretaker) is clear, and it’s a resolute “No.
Ultimately, the strength– and the surprise— of this stellar production (directed by Christopher Morahan and starring a riveting Jonathan Pryce as Davies) lie in its scorching humor. (It’s the theater of the absurd, after all.) Why do we laugh at this feral trio as they tear each other apart? Because it’s so outrageous? Or, in eliciting our laughter, is Pinter implicating us in those crimes against humanity as well?
Pinter has been called a master of “comedy of menace.” I never fully understood that expression until I saw this funny, ferocious production.
Not so delicate
Hopelessness seems to be a recurrent theme at the Brooklyn Academy of Music this spring. The Caretaker was preceded there by another classic— the much-anticipated Russian-language production of Chekhov’s masterpiece, Three Sisters, by the acclaimed Maly Drama Theatre of St. Petersburg.
I’ve always maintained that the essence of Chekhov is a delicate balance between light and dark, funny and sad, comedy and tragedy. But apparently director Lev Dodin, who is widely regarded as the pre-eminent Chekhov director in the playwright’s motherland, doesn’t think so, at least not this time around.
Dodin gives us another bleak landscape, even bleaker than Pinter’s, if you can imagine. On an empty stage, with only the façade of the family mansion in view, Dodin’s three Prozorov sisters (Olga, Irina, Masha) gaze out through the gaping black windows into darkness, as their hopes of flight from their provincial prison to Moscow (and fulfillment) are dashed.
“There can be no happiness,” says one. “We can only dream it.”
But Dodin’s sisters don’t even do that. They sit silently in those windows like the Three Fates, or they cluster downstage on a series of narrow steps where the ensemble congregates. In this highly stylized, expressionistic production— one that relies on tableaux rather than plot— it’s all doom and gloom, as one by one the sisters’ hopes are dashed.
To watch these three sisters rolling around on the floor, moaning “To Moscow” or flinging themselves on their respective lovers in desperation, is to witness Chekhov taken to an expressionistic level that is, well, just not Chekhovian. Startling? Yes. But heart-breaking? No. Rendering their sexual frustrations explicit through exaggerated physical action (these three sisters dance and twirl and hurl themselves about) goes against the grain of those portrayals of longing that make Chekhov the delicate impressionistic artist that he is.
Still, Dodin’s Three Sisters will haunt me, if only for its innovations. I’ll remember this production as the “Four Sisters"— Natasha, the villainous sister-in-law, has been upgraded and given a non-traditionally sympathetic portrayal. I’ll remember the sisters huddled on those stairs, clinging to each other, seeking shelter as if in a storm.
Above all, I’ll remember them seated in those dark windows, isolated, alone, just like Pinter’s characters in theirs.