The Caretaker Review — Total Immersion in Pinter

Despite Harold Pinter’s 2005 Nobel Prize for Literature, the works of the late playwright are not every theatergoer’s cup of tea. “Pinteresque,” the adjective his plays inspired, might be translated loosely as “theater of the absurd with menace and fraught pauses.” For fans of Pinter, however, there may be no better way to experience the Pinteresque than in the full-immersion production of The Caretaker directed by Ron OJ Parson at Writers’ Theatre in Glencoe.

 

William J. Norris, Kareem Bandealy & Anish Jethmalani

Parson professes to love intimate theater, and Writers’ Theatre’s Books on Vernon space is as an intimate a setting as they come. The audience is always close to the action in that space, but scenic designer Jack Magaw’s scarily realistic set brings the audience inside the space, cluttering the walls behind playgoers with curated junk that seems as if it’s spilling out the minds of the three characters who occupy the cramped space. Neither is the audience separated by light. A bare light bulb and other dim sources of illumination in Heather Gilbert’s evocative lighting design cast the same weak beams on audience and actors.

 

Parsons doesn’t tinker with the text of the play, first produced in 1960, but the director gives it a subtle update through its casting. The three characters — an old tramp and two brothers — are usually played as British nationals. Davies, the tramp, fully inhabited by William J. Norris, boasts of being “born and bred in the British Isles” and rails against foreigners, especially “the Blacks” (referring to an Indian family next door), but even casts aspersions on Scotsmen. The ironic update is that the brothers in this production, Aston, who takes the homeless bum in (a dignified Anish Jethmalani), and Mick, the unwilling landlord (a threatening Kareem Bandealy), are played by two actors of South Asian descent. Parsons says the casting was serendipitous, the result of great auditions by talented actors. Indeed, all three actors are superb — with excellent dialect coaching from Eva Breneman — and the twist in casting sharpens the edges of Davies’ racist barbs.

 

The plot is spare and mysterious. Davies has been fired from his scut work at a nearby eatery, and Aston brings him to his attic room to get the ragged bum out of the inclement weather. Realizing that Davies has no home, Aston offers Davies a bed for the night, proceeding to unearth from underneath a mound of debris a rusty cot covered in stained linens.

 

Beggars aren’t supposed to be choosers, but Pinter’s beggar is in fact quite choosy. He rejects the first pair of shoes Aston offers him as a replacement for his worn out boots with taped-on soles. Although Davies approves of the shoe leather, he declares the toes to be too pointed. In a later scene he complains about the brown shoelaces that Aston scrounges up for a pair of black shoes, and he rejects entirely a checked shirt, preferring stripes. The one donation that enchants Davies is a silky smoking jacket, which he flings with aplomb over his dingy long johns — costume designer Janice Pytel supplies just the right items. The garment is completely absurd in the setting, which is exactly the point.

 

It is challenging to unravel the characters’ motivations in these absurd situations, but that’s half the “fun” of Pinter. Each of the characters is a paradox. Mick cuts a terrifying figure, threatening and badgering Davies repeatedly. But Mick has a soft spot for his brother and, it turns out, for interior decoration. In a detailed monologue about how he would redo the rooms of the dilapidated building, Mick tosses out “oatmeal tweed” like a mid-century Nate Berkus.

 

Kareem Bandealy threatens William J. Norris

At the start of the play, Aston is even more difficult to fathom. He treats Davies with consideration and dignity, even though Davies does not always respond in kind. He offers Davies a job as caretaker, an offer that Mick similarly extends for reasons that are unclear. At first Aston barely speaks up when his sleep is interrupted by Davies’ nightmares — Davies declares he’s never had a dream in his life — and by the almost visible stench of the unwashed bum. Why does Aston put up with all this? In a haunting third-act monologue, Aston recalls how his very being was taken out of his control.

 

The darkly comic world of the characters may not add up logically, but at Writers’ Theater, the audience has no choice but to enter that world, grabbed at the lapels by intense performances. Immersed in Pinter, the theatergoer can only go with flow.

 

The Caretaker

Writers’ Theatre, 664 Vernon Avenue in Glencoe

November 8, 2011 – March 25, 2012

 

Photos: Michael Brosilow

 

 

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