Who’s taking care of Pinter’s crafty Caretaker?

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Jonathan Pryce (right) is the tramp Davies and Alex Hassell is the bully Mick in director Christopher Morahan’s beguiling revival of Harold Pinter’s The Caretaker at the Curran Theatre as part of the SHN season. Below: Pryce (left) and Alan Cox as Aston discuss raindrops falling on Davies’ head. Photos by Shane Reid

There are all kinds of battles going on in Harold Pinter’s The Caretaker – brother vs. brother, brothers vs. the tramp, the tramp vs. the truth, loneliness vs. despair, etc. – but the really interesting battle is between menace and humor. Surprisingly, at least in the sharply etched production now at the Curran Theatre as part of the SHN season, humor wins.

The first big hit of Pinter’s career in 1960, The Caretaker is an enigmatic game of existentialist proportions. It’s one of those “nothing is happening/everything is happening” exercises in carefully contained drama. The characters remain mysterious because Pinter, as their creator, chooses to divulge so very little about them and disallows them from sharing anything directly with one another. Such vague – call it purposefully restrained – writing served Beckett well, and sure enough, The Caretaker has ascended to modern classic status.

Pinter can annoy me faster than just about any other playwright if his work falls into the wrong hands. Happily, this production, which originated at the Liverpool Everyman and Playhouse before moving on to London’s West End and a world tour, feels lived in and full of life (at least as much life as Pinter will allow amid the portentous silences and lonely drifting).

The reason for this welcome liveliness rests with the creative team: director Christopher Morahan and actors Jonathan Pryce, Alan Cox and Alex Hassell. This quartet works effectively as a team to pull the most they can from Pinter’s text, including some medium-size laughs and the ever-present menace of an older brother who’s never really gone, even when he has exited the room (set designer Eileen Diss has provided, amid the clutter of this dingy dwelling, walls that reveal secrets about who’s on the other side).

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Two brothers, bully Mick (Hassell), the younger, and brain-damaged Aston (Cox), the elder, don’t seem overly close or affectionate when the play begins. In fact, it seems like they have very little relationship at all. Mick bops around London doing whatever it is he does – playing games, being a landlord, torturing people – and Aston, in his tie and sweater vest, keeps himself to one leaky room, where he collects things from off the street. When he expands his collection to include a tramp, his older brother takes notice, and the games begin.

The tramp, known alternately as Davies and Jenkins (the brilliant Pryce), is a slippery fella. He’ll agree with whatever makes you happy or whatever he thinks will render him the greatest return. Offer him a pair of shoes to replace the shoddy slippers he’s wearing and he may refuse on the ground they’re too small or the laces are the wrong color. Offer him a bed, and he may end up complaining that the wind and rain coming through the nearby window disturbed his sleep and how about he sleeps in your bed instead?

Davies, in the kind of desperate craftiness that has become the norm for his life on the street, tries to play brother against brother, but that doesn’t work. Both end up turning on him in different ways, even after they’ve offered shabby hospitality and the promise of a care-taking job. Each of these men desperately needs to connect with someone (especially the brothers to each other), but they’re all so walled into their own personal dramas that they just slam up against one another repeatedly. There’s one moment of connection, between the brothers, that involves a shared smile, and though that should be a warm (if not fuzzy) moment, it turns out to be chilling.

Each of the actors is superb, but Pryce is mesmerizing. On the page, there’s nothing really likeable about Davies, but Pryce finds depths that even Pinter may not have suspected. Pryce’s Davies may be crazy or he may be completely sane and playing a game. He’s a racist and a liar, a con man and a cruel friend. But he’s also sad. So sad. And desperate. There’s fear and cockiness in equal measure, and the best part of Pryce’s performance is that we feel all of that. This isn’t a showy performance at all because it seems perfectly scaled to the play. Pryce is so memorable because he seems to have disappeared so completely behind Davies scruffy beard and ever-shifting face.

So much is made of Pinter’s silences that it’s hard not to laugh when yet another power card is being played in the game between the three men. Someone is being banished with a charge of, “You make too much noise.” It all comes down to that, after the scuffling, the thwarted efforts to connect, to silence.

[bonus interviews]
I interviewed Jonathan Pryce and director Christopher Morahan for the San Francisco Chronicle. Read the story here.

Harold Pinter’s The Caretaker continues through April 22 at the Curran Theatre, 445 Geary St., San Francisco. Tickets are $31-$100 (subject to change). Call 888-746-1799 or visit www.shnsf.com.

2 thoughts on “Who’s taking care of Pinter’s crafty Caretaker?

  1. Great review Chad! In my Pinter performances Hall of Fame, along with Carpenter’s Birthday Party and Augeson’s Homecoming. We were lucky enough to sit right up close to the actors. The whole experience was electrifying!

  2. Nice to find your review of this glorious production which I saw at BAM in Brooklyn last night. About as perfect a night of theatre as it gets; there’s not a note wrong. Hilarious and heartbreaking, the best Pinter I’ve ever seen.

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