At the Mary-Arrchie Theatre Co.
By Dan Zeff
Chicago – Harold Pinter’s “The Homecoming” may be the most analyzed play of the last 50 years. Theories abound about what Pinter was conveying in his drama, be it ethnic, psychological, feminist, mythic, or sexual. It seemed like everyone who saw the play had a theory, possibly excluding viewers who rejected the play outright as vile or improbable to the max.
“The Homecoming” is about a dysfunctional family of males in the blue color East End of London. The family patriarch is the tyrannical Max. He presides over a household consisting of his brother Sam, who is the main outlet for Max’s abuse, and sons Lenny and Joey. Lenny is a thuggish pimp and Joey, the youngest in the brood, is trying to become a professional boxer.
Into this combative group comes Teddy, Max’s oldest son who visits unexpectedly from the United States, where he has been living for the past six years as a doctor of philosophy teaching at an American university. He brings his wife, Ruth, a woman previously unknown to the London branch of the family. Near the end of the play, Max and his sons invite Ruth to remain in London, abandoning her marriage and her three children to become a prostitute supervised by Lenny. She would also service the London menfolk along with performing other miscellaneous household chores. Ruth agrees and her husband impassively goes along with the arrangement before returning to the United States, where he will have some serious explaining to do to his three children.
When “The Homecoming” exploded on the London and Broadway theater scenes in the mid 1960’s, many people were shocked and offended by the contract between Ruth and the London men and baffled and outraged that her husband would go along with such an immoral plot twist. The New York Times was flooded with letters to the editor taking sides and there was even a casebook on the play published in 1971.
Much of the
commentary about the play focuses on shifting power relationships among the
characters, especially after Ruth enters as the only female in the
male-dominated household. She subtly takes over the family with her inscrutable
demeanor and strong aura of female sexuality. Outwardly she serves the men but
in reality she becomes the controlling force, or so say some critics.
The Mary-Arrchie Theatre is reviving “The Homecoming” in a proficient staging that needs to be more Pinterian to match the play’s challenges. By Pinterian, I mean that the play needs more sexual tension and more of that sinister quality lurking just below the surface of the action that makes Pointer’s play such fascinating, and disturbing, viewing experiences.
Vance Smith looks the part of Lenny, with his shaved head, but he needs more menace. He should be scarier. Luke Hatton is too young for Teddy, the elder brother who is in his mid 30’s. Because of his youthful appearance Hatton doesn’t provide Teddy with the outward maturity that makes Teddy’s acceptance of his wife’s lifestyle change so perplexing, and disturbing.
The production omits a sense of locale that adds color to the narrative. The action is set in the Jewish section of the East End, where Pinter grew up. There is even a school of thought that “The Homecoming” is actually a story of Jewish domestic life, which Pinter denied. But there is no ethnic flavor to the Mary-Arrchie staging, a loss, if a subtle one.
The character of Ruth is one of the most difficult in modern drama. She has comparatively few lines and the actress must fall back on facial expressions and body language to express visually what the character isn’t allowed to convey verbally. Michaela Petro does well in establishing the basic outlines of the woman but she didn’t exude the sense of erotic power that eventually weaves a web around Max, Lenny, and Joey. Ruth will always be a mystery woman and maybe in time Petro will tap into that mysterious quality more fully.
These comments are not intended to invalidate what is a commendable attempt to bring a controversial and elusive play to life. Richard Cotovsky’s Max is properly cruel and Jack McCabe is convincing as the harmless and put-upon Sam. Director Geoff Button brings the play in at a tight two hours including an intermission. This is one of the toughest plays in the modern canon to stage, but also one of the most rewarding. If the Mary-Arrchie revival doesn’t maximize the play’s unique qualities, it’ still a literate and professional attempt. Local audiences don’t get many chances to see this classic and the Mary-Arrchie version is a decent introduction for audience newcomers.
An epilogue. Too many members of the opening night audience seemed to think “The Homecoming” is a laugh riot. There is some black humor in the play but nothing to encourage the boisterous laughs emitted by some spectators, notably the young man perched behind me on the aisle, who must have believed he was watching a Neil Simon comedy.
“The Homecoming” runs through April 10 at the Mary-Arrchie Theatre, 735 West Sheridan Road. Performances are Thursday through Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 7 p.m. Tickets are $20 and $22. Call 773 871 0442 or visit www.ticketweb.com.
The show gets a rating of three stars. March 2011
Contact Dan at email@example.com.
Visit Dan on Facebook.