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Theater Review: ‘The Caretaker’

A human dilemma: comedy fuses with tragedy

By Diana Barth Created: May 24, 2012 Last Updated: May 25, 2012
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Davies (Jonathan Pryce) joins brothers Mick (Alex Hassell) and Aston (Alan Cox) to become caretaker of their unkempt apartment. (Richard Termine)

Davies (Jonathan Pryce) joins brothers Mick (Alex Hassell) and Aston (Alan Cox) to become caretaker of their unkempt apartment. (Richard Termine)

BROOKLYN, NY—BAM (Brooklyn Academy of Music) has brought from England a Theatre Royal Bath Productions/Liverpool Everyman and Playhouse production of The Caretaker by Harold Pinter, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature and many other literary awards.

Into a remarkably cluttered room somewhere in London, the tenant, Aston (Alan Cox), leads a scruffy, grizzled tramp who calls himself Davies (Jonathan Pryce). Aston has invited the homeless man to stay the night after he loses his job at a local pub following an altercation with his boss.

The reserved and neatly dressed Aston, who might pass for an accountant, seems an anomaly in this disordered environment. Ignoring his guest, Aston sits on his bed attempting to repair the plug on an electric toaster. Success eludes him, possibly after many tries.

Davies, shrewdly noting Aston’s seeming laissez-faire attitude, deduces that maybe his stay can be prolonged.

He tests his host. Davies needs a pair of shoes, and does Aston have any to offer. As a matter of fact he does. But they don’t suit Davies—too tight, he opines. This tramp is fussy.

Inspecting the room and apparently leaky roof—a bucket is hung haphazardly from the ceiling—Davies is concerned as to whether the nearby “blacks” ever enter the house to use the bathroom. Though down on his luck, his obvious racism indicates he feels superior to foreigners.

He tests the bed Aston offers. Clearly pleased with his good fortune, Davies smugly makes himself at home.

He is concerned, however, that the stove placed close to his bed may leak gas during the night and suffocate him. He repeats his concern even after Aston assures him that the stove is not connected. But Aston fuels Davies’s confidence by offering him a job as caretaker to the place. Davies is surprised, but will consider the offer.

With Aston having exited, stress enters in the person of Mick (Alex Hassell), an egotistical street type who proclaims himself to be the actual owner of the property, and that he permits Aston, who is his brother, to stay there. The rug is being pulled out from under Davies, as the balance of power has shifted dangerously. Even though Mick himself also offers Davies the position of caretaker, Davies is losing his earlier sense of equilibrium.

All three characters are in denial, each needing to perform some task in order to get on with his life. They communicate obliquely and seem to be going their separate ways.

Davies—whose real name is Jenkins— claims he must visit a nearby town to get his papers (which have been sitting there about 15 years) and set straight his proper name—when the weather clears, which it never seems to do.

Aston stares longingly out the window and remarks that he must get a shed built.

Mick must have the house redone properly and insists that he has hired the now bewildered Davies to perform work requiring the skills of a professional interior decorator.

More cat-and-mouse games follow, engineered by the taunting Mick. The coup de grace is unexpectedly performed by the heretofore welcoming Aston. At play’s end, Davies is completely unwound. In severe emotional pain, he is as desperate as any human being can be.

In this play, no less than man’s brutality to man is on display, a profound theme. Director Christopher Morahan’s interpretation stresses the play’s comedic aspects, which bring about big laughs from the audience.

But although beautifully performed by the three actors with some brilliant theatrical pyrotechnics, particularly by Jonathan Pryce, a stronger underlying sense of menace and yes, tragedy, throughout, elements which are more than implied in Pinter’s text, would have created a more potent and more meaningful ultimate effect.

This is a question of interpretation, however, and there is no doubt that Mr. Morahan’s version has proven both effective and entertaining.

Production elements of set design by Eileen Diss, costumes by Dany Everett, lighting by Colin Grenfell, sound by Tom Lishman, and fight direction by Bret Yount, are of the highest caliber.

The Caretaker
Harvey Theater
Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM)
651 Fulton Street, Brooklyn
Tickets: 718-636-4100 or www.bam.org
Running Time: 2 hours, 30 minutes
Closes: June 17

Diana Barth writes and publishes “New Millennium,” an arts publication. For information: www.diabarth@juno.com.

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