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The Homecoming
by Harold Pinter
Directed by Milton Zoth
St. Louis Actors’ Studio
May 23, 2014

Charlie Barron, Peter Mayer, Missy Heinemann, Ben Ritchie, Larry Dell, Nathan Bush Photo by John Lamb St. Louis Actors' Studio

Charlie Barron, Peter Mayer, Missy Heinemann, Ben Ritchie, Larry Dell, Nathan Bush
Photo by John Lamb
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

Theatre is fascinating in its variety. Sometimes a play will be easy to understand and will simply entertain. Some plays will make you think a little bit. Occasionally, there will be a play that makes you think a lot, and then re-think and second guess, and think again, all the while leaving you unsure of whether you really understood what was happening. Harold Pinter is a master of this kind of play, and The Homecoming is a prime example. Provoking, challenging, and even daring the audience to make sense of its plot and characters, this is a play that can stick in a viewer’s head, especially in the hands of a strong cast and director.  St. Louis Actors Studio, closing out their 2013 season, is presenting a memorable, challenging production of this intense and challenging play.

The most often-repeated comment I heard from audience members after this play was “and you thought your family was weird!”  Indeed, with The Homecoming, Pinter has introduced a dysfunctional family at the extreme end of the scale.  The family is initially presented to be something of a garden variety snarky brood, as patriarch Max (Peter Mayer) trades barbs with his angry, enterprising son Lenny (Charlie Barron)  and his fastidious brother, Sam (Larry Dell) and humors his other son Joey (Nathan Bush), a not-too-bright wannabe boxer.  As for the sons’ late mother, there are hints and vague reminiscences but very little concrete information. It’s when long-absent eldest son Teddy (Ben Ritchie), a philosophy professor, returns to his childhood home with his initially nervous wife Ruth (Missy Heinemann) in tow that it starts to get more obvious how truly strange this family is in reality. It’s clear from their arrival that there is tension in Teddy’s and Ruth’s marriage, and Ruth’s confrontational meeting with Lenny sets the tone for more revelations as the story progresses, revealing the true character and motivations of each family member while leading to a shocking proposal and somewhat surprising conclusion.

The characters here, while not particularly likable, are very sharply drawn and expertly portrayed by an extremely strong group of actors. Barron is a force of nature as Lenny, a mixture of magnetic presence and fierce, unapologetic and even brutal amorality. He can be downright scary, but but he’s also fascinating to watch.  His first meeting with Heinemann’s initially hesitant but ultimately just as devious Ruth is charged with primal energy and challenge. Ritchie, as the weak-willed Teddy, and Bush,  as the brutish but almost childlike palooka Joey, provide excellent support, and Dell is engaging as the one character who seems to have a conscience, the proud but conflicted Sam. As Max, Mayer is a match for Barron in his darkly comic energy and potential for menace, with a layer of obvious nostalgia for an earlier time that may not have been as great as he insists on presenting it. The entire cast displays an impressive sense of chemistry and energy as the plot unfolds, displaying a full range of the darker aspects of human nature as well as very real, if misplaced, sense of longing for acceptance and familial connection that is made very clear even in the midst of the more twisted and unsavory goings-on.

The mood and tone of this production is aptly suggested by Patrick Huber’s detailed set, which portrays a well-worn house that displays many signs of disrepair, much like the family that inhabits it. The exposed beams of a hastily-removed wall in the middle of the room, and the ghost images of long-forgotten paintings on the back wall suggest a sense of carelessness and despair.  The costume design, by Carla Landis Evans, is also strikingly appropriate, from Max’s much-worn ragged undershirt to Sam’s more meticulous attire and Lenny’s more flashy-sleazy outfits that suggest the nature of his “occupation” that is ultimately revealed in the second act of the play. Zoth’s dynamic staging adds to the offbeat atmosphere as well, creating a tense, character-driven production that holds the attention throughout the highly-charged proceedings.

This is not an easy play to understand, to put it mildly, and it’s bound to provoke strong reactions.  This is a play that is at once bizarre, shocking, challenging and even infuriating. This isn’t a happy play, nor is it easy to process, and it’s definitely for adult audiences.  Still, with its sharply drawn characters, top-notch acting and impeccable staging, The Homecoming is theatre at its most provocative and complex. It will surely give you something to think and talk about on your way to your own home.

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The Hothouse

by Harold Pinter

Directed by Suki Peters

West End Players Guild

November 1, 2013

Robert Ashton, Zach Wachter Photo courtesy of West End Players Guild

Robert Ashton, Zach Wachter
Photo courtesy of West End Players Guild

I didn’t know entirely what to expect when I went to see West End Players Guild’s production of The Hothouse. I knew this was Harold Pinter so I was expecting something unconventional, but knowing about Pinter and seeing one of his plays are different things (I had read some scenes from his plays but had never seen one performed).   It’s also the first play I’ve seen from this company, and I have to say I’m impressed.  This is the kind of play that I watch and then not just want to keep talking about on the way home, but for a while afterward. It sticks in a person’s head.  It’s outrageously funny but also thought provoking and not a little bit disturbing. Also, in the hands of the excellent cast and creative team at West End Players Guild, it’s positively riveting from start to finish.

The Hothouse is a black comedy revolving around the staff of an unspecified “government institution” in England in what appears to be the late 1950s (the play was written in 1958). It appears to be some kind of long-term care facility, and the patients are referred to by numbers rather than names.  The staff members, from the institution’s director Roote (Robert Ashton), to his assistant Gibbs (Zach Wachter) and co-workers Lush (Roger Erb) and Miss Cutts (Elizabeth Graveman), all have their own agendas, and the unwitting and aptly named Lamb (Pete Winfrey) finds himself in the midst of their schemes.  In a story that broadly and brutally satirizes institutional bureaucracy, there are many twists, turns and machinations as staff members seek to figure out what to do about the death of one patient and the unexpected childbirth of another.  The plot unfolds from there and involves ambitious plotting, sexual politics, drunken bravado, violence, and absurdity, and it all takes place on Christmas Day.

Pinter’s script is wordy, witty, and full of dynamic language and strong characterization, and it would be easy for a mediocre cast to get lost in all the dialogue, but fortunately that’s not the case here. The show is expertly paced and staged by director Suki Peters, and the cast is extremely strong.  The standouts to me were Ashton as the pompous, forgetful and increasingly sinister Roote, Wachter as the stoic but scheming Gibbs, and Erb as the swaggering, confrontational Lush. These three have a very memorable scene together involving lots of drinking, in which the tone gets increasingly antogonistic, with great wordplay by Pinter. Ashton and Wachter in particular have many excellent scenes together, starting from the opening, and it is their performances that anchor this production. Winfrey also makes a strong impression as the eager, clueless Lamb, and Graveman is effective as the lascivious Miss Cutts.

The set for this production (designed by Brian Peters) is inventively done, with the main setting of Roote’s office on the floor of the auditorium, with the stage behind it serving as various alternate locations, most notably the staff’s break room. Period music, sounding appropriately like old records played over a loudspeaker, adds to the 1950s atmosphere, as does the well-appointed set  suggesting a cold, institutional setting. I also thought the lighting (designed by Nathan Schroeder) and sound (designed by Joshua Cook) added to the creepiness of some of the more absurd scenes, and particularly one at the end of the first act involving Gibbs, Miss Cutts and Lamb.  The tone of this play ranges from silly to caustic to creepy moment by moment, and the look and sound of it added to the intensity of this production.

This is one of those plays that makes the audience think as well as laugh. There are many laugh-out-loud moments as well as “what the hell?” moments as the comic and tragic elements of the play are so well realized. It’s a great script, yes, but it takes an excellent production to bring Pinter’s words to life, and this is a thoroughly well-done, fascinating production.  I was very impressed by West End Players Guild, and I look forward to seeing more of their productions in the future.

Zach Wachter, Robert Ashton, Rober Erb Photo Courtesy of West End Players Guild

Zach Wachter, Robert Ashton, Roger Erb
Photo Courtesy of West End Players Guild

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