Wednesday, October 14, 2009
Joe Lanza, John Kuntz and Michael Balcanoff in The Caretaker.
The Nora Theatre's current production of The Caretaker (through November 1 at the Central Square Theater) is in many ways a worthy piece of work. Director Daniel Gidron has (wisely) decided not to attempt to "update" the play that first brought Harold Pinter international attention; indeed, within the production's budget, Gidron and his designers seem to have attempted to replicate as faithfully as possible the circumstances of Great Britain in 1959, the year of the drama's debut. The accent work in the production may be only adequate, but it's still good enough to not distract; and the acting (particularly by John Kuntz) is thoughtful and detailed, and at times quite absorbing.
Yet despite all the care taken with The Caretaker, the mysterious sense of unknown danger that once defined Pinter - and which I am old enough to remember from productions I saw in the 70's - has gone missing from this version. And the Nora is hardly alone in its inability to conjure that once-famous atmosphere of threat. The A.R.T.'s No Man's Land from two seasons ago felt similarly flat, and its Birthday Party from a few years before that had been faintly ridiculous. Other, smaller local productions that I've seen in recent years - of One for the Road, or The Lover, for instance - have been similarly threat-free. Indeed, as I watched The Caretaker I realized that I hadn't felt a classic Pinterian chill from a new production in perhaps two decades; you might have to go all the way back to the late 80's, and the Huntington's production of The Birthday Party, to sense the playwright's old black magic. And this issue couldn't be laid at the feet of directorial interference; true, at the A.R.T. director JoAnne Akalaitis had essentially parodied The Birthday Party, but other recent productions had been quite seriously conceived, and Daniel Gidron clearly intended this Caretaker to be as close an approximation to the original production as possible. (Indeed, a clip from the original film, below, reveals that even it is none too disturbing today.)
A sequence from the 1963 film of The Caretaker, with Donald Pleasance and Alan Bates.
So is Pinter "dated"? And if so, why? And how might his seemingly lost immediacy be recaptured?
Of course what's clear at once about Pinter is that if he is dated, it's due to his incredible success and influence. Listening to The Caretaker, in fact, I was struck again and again by how his voice has become the lingua franca of so much pop culture. Saturday Night Live appeared just as his output began winding down, and its skits were often rife with light, dumbed-down riffs on his central tropes. Then came Quentin Tarantino, whose dialogue is essentially a drive-in-movie version of Pinter's comedy of menace, re-fitted with fresher pop references (and goosed along by literal threats of torture and rape). But a funny thing happened to the Theatre of the Absurd once Quentin Tarantino and Lorne Michaels got their hands on it: it went meta, and lost its powers of critique.
But then today we don't have "irony" anymore; we have meta-irony instead. The ironic stance is no longer a challenge for an audience - rather it's an escape hatch. Culturally we're all channel-surfers, no longer embedded in the consensus that Pinter was savaging in 1959; belief in God, normative heterosexuality, the oppressions of bourgeois capitalism, the threatening police state - to today's audiences, all these things are essentially avoidable via the all-too-aptly-named "remote." And "irony" is the knowing lubricant by which we slide past each other in what remains of our cultural meeting-places.
The problem for Pinter's legacy is that while his manner has become ubiquitous, nothing coherent has replaced his initial target. Thus his stance has become comforting rather than disturbing - indeed, the audience I saw The Caretaker with responded warmly to the bizarre non-sequiturs of the leather-jacket-clad Mick, who rattles on about interior decorating while hinting at violence. The character's dislocations of meaning were funny and familiar; we took him as one of us, our theatrical avatar.
And we do so because we no longer identify with Pinter's benighted victims, but instead feel secure in our superiority to them as they grope around (sometimes literally) in the cultural dark. Unlike them, we're sure of our powers of control over our separate lifestyle-niches; if worse comes to worst, we don't have to grapple with existential questions, we can simply go shopping for a new identity.
Against this deeply cynical, but utterly self-amused alienation, Pinter has little or no power. Indeed, what's striking about his current cultural position is that the playwrights he was thought to replace, like Noël Coward and Terence Rattigan, have seen a renaissance in interest, as their durable virtues match well to a certain nostalgic demographic. In a word, the well-made play is hot, the Theatre of the Absurd is not.
But how to restore Pinter's former potency? Ah, there's the rub; the decline of "monoculture" may have dealt a greater blow to the absurdists and existentialists than it has to the bourgeoisie (which, in case you haven't noticed, is flourishing). And so far, at least, no one has managed to crack the carapace of self-satisfaction one senses in our Gen-Y "glibertarians" - they're not shivering in some Beckettian wasteland, struggling with the bleak truths of the absurdists; they are, instead, snug as bugs in their respective digital rugs. And the idea of using absurdity to attack their own assumptions strikes most of them as, well, simply absurd; indeed, their strategy of simultaneous disconnection from, yet accommodation to, the social and political world may make them all-but-impervious to theatre as a mode of communal critique. Thus any clear-eyed observer must inevitably face the underside of all those calls to draw more young people into the theatre: if we do so, we may inevitably compromise what theatre still, just barely, is.
Of course all's not quite lost, and even this production of The Caretaker offered some insights into how Pinter's legacy might be kept alive. The production's central problem lay in the performance of Michael Balcanoff, as the tramp who tries to destabilize, but then is victimized by, the power relationship between two mysterious brothers (Joe Lanza and John Kuntz). Balcanoff was a convincingly scruffy, homeless gentleman, but was unable to insinuate much in the way of either seedy subservience or indeterminate identity. He was a bit better once his own sense of power began to inflate, but as a particularly destabilizing form of Pinterian threat, he still fell short. Likewise, Joe Lanza brought little sense of sadism to the preening, malicious Mick, although he did, as expected, make the character's long flights of fancy quite funny. It was John Kuntz who made the production memorable, even if at first his take on the brain-damaged Aston was almost too recessed to be truly theatrical. But in his long solo in the second act, in which Aston recalls how he came to be so mentally impaired (unlike Beckett's Lucky, Aston's mind was violated, a key difference between Pinter and his great mentor), Kuntz was superb - quietly, but meticulously, intense. And briefly, the cold fires within the play flickered to life.