Call it the Pinter Primer: More often than you might guess, a small theater company decides to string together a collection of Harold Pinter’s sketches and one-acts, in roughly chronological order, to create a full evening’s performance. It might be fun, like going out for tapas, except for one thing: Pinter’s dramatic writing is pretty close to the least nourishing on Earth. And his short plays have a particular lack of meat on their bones. Even watching 100 of his briefest scripts in a row wouldn’t fill you up. It might teach you how to follow an obliquely existential question with an opaquely nihilist reply, but it wouldn’t fill you up.
Usually, these nights begin with a series of sketches from the early part of Pinter’s career, some of which are only three or four minutes long, and end with A Kind of Alaska, the more substantial one-act that Pinter wrote in 1982, when he was 52. And that’s the formula followed by the Potomac Theatre Project in the first of two nights of one-acts running in repertory at the Olney Theatre Center. In addition to the five Pinter plays, a second bill pairs Caryl Churchill’s The After-Dinner Joke, a 1977 tale of idealism gone haywire, with Jeffrey Hatcher’s 1993 Scotland Road, which features a woman who claims to have survived the sinking of the Titanic by floating on an iceberg and to have somehow sidestepped the passage of time. The productions are part of the annual Potomac Theatre Festival, which also includes Olney’s current production of The Laramie Project.
Taken together, the two nights of one-acts are meant to suggest a map of some common dramatic terrain. Nearly every one of the seven scripts explores questions of confusion, identity crisis, and shifting definitions of truth and falsehood. Only sporadically, though, are those themes illuminated here in any sort of fresh or unorthodox way. More often, the one-acts play like elegantly staged but essentially straightforward theatrical exercises—which, in a way, they are: Two PTP founders, Cheryl Faraone and Richard Romagnoli, teach at Middlebury College, and many of the actors in the smaller roles are recent graduates of that school.
The Pinter night, directed by Romagnoli, begins with four scripts written between the late ’50s and the early ’80s. The first, The Black and White, features two women (Sara Garland and Valerie Leonard) scarfing down bread and tomato soup as if they were starving, and discussing numbered bus routes. Precisely has two corporate drones in matching gray suits (David Bryan Jackson and Sean Nelson) cryptically arguing over 20 million deaths as if they were talking about quarterly earnings. (“I want you to accept the figure,” Jackson’s character says repeatedly. “Accept the figure!”) Then comes Request Stop, from 1959, which manages to turn the names of bus stops (Shepherd’s Bush, Marble Arch) into vague double entendres. Victoria Station features a cabdriver (Nick Olson), known only by his number (274), who is cheerfully unwilling to obey orders from a dispatcher (the disembodied voice of Richard Pilcher).
In his shortest plays, as in a number of his full-length scripts, Pinter is an absurdist working without a narrative net. You might be able to add up the facts of a story from the spare language into an arrangement that makes some sense and explains some motivation, or you might not. And that’s basically the point: Arbitrariness is just as real and natural as logic, if not more so. Confusion for Pinter is not something, as it is in the vast majority of Western drama, that exists only to be cleared up in the last act.
A Kind of Alaska is different. Though the usual order of presentation might imply that it’s somehow a culmination of the themes being worked out in Pinter’s early work, it’s more like an inversion of those themes, or even a repudiation. In Alaska, all of that existential disorientation is ultimately explained away by circumstance—which makes the story accessible in a way you’d never expect from Pinter.
The script is based on Oliver Sacks’ book Awakenings (also the source for the weepy 1990 movie starring Robin Williams and Robert De Niro), which described European cases in which patients who’d been catatonic for as long as 50 years were suddenly brought back to life by an injection of the drug L-Dopa. The story begins just as one such patient, Deborah (Leonard), is opening her eyes. She’s greeted by her doctor (James Slaughter) and then her sister Pauline (Lindsay Haynes). Deborah’s world is upside-down, of course, because she has the mind of a 16-year-old girl in the weakened body of a 45-year-old woman, and she expects her sister not to have aged. She’s like the space traveler who’s used to explain the theory of relativity. But ultimately it all makes sense to us—and though the characters are no purer than in Pinter’s other work, the narrative connections are.
The second night of one-acts also takes places on Alex Cooper’s attractively spare metallic set. Faraone’s restaging of The After-Dinner Joke, a cynical, antic exploration of charity and optimism written in 1976 to mark Queen Elizabeth’s Silver Jubilee, coincides with this year’s Golden Jubilee, and a few new lines seem to have been added to mark the occasion. The protagonist is an idealistic young woman named Selby (Tara Giordano), whose boss at a stereotypical corporation (Jackson) pays her salary while she explores the world of charitable fundraising.
Through a series of quick-cutting vignettes, the script follows Selby as she travels to various locales around the world, leaving a chunk of her innocence in each spot. Though it’s got 15 characters, from a pop star (Steven Carpenter) to a left-leaning mayor (Pilcher), and is full of hilarity and staged at full throttle, the play doesn’t add up to much except a sort of grad-school conclusion that the lines dividing selflessness from self-interest can get tangled awfully easily. Oh, and everything under the sun—sorry, everything including the sun—is political. God save the queen.
The high point of the two nights is undoubtedly Hatcher’s Scotland Road, directed tautly by Chris Hayes. And the discovery of this minifestival is undoubtedly the young actor Kristen Connolly, who graduated from Middlebury this spring. She plays the young woman found floating on the iceberg, wearing a 70-year-old outfit, who whispers just one word to her rescuers: “Titanic.” She is whisked away to a sort of safe house, where a man named Astor has hired a doctor to watch over her while he tests her assertion that she has survived the sinking of the ship and also managed to avoid aging for all these years. It’s not hard to see the connections between this story and A Kind of Alaska—which makes me think PTP should have just put on a single night of one-acts, pairing those two scripts and forgetting about the early Pinter and the Churchill. (It’s also not hard to understand why the company didn’t go that route: The two best one-acts have only seven parts between them, whereas the lesser five have 22. And a central point of the festival is to get a whole bunch of promising young actors onstage.)
In any event, Connolly is terrific, from the blood-curdling scream at the beginning to the tricky rhetorical balancing act she manages near the end of this story of impostors and tabloid reality. And all the elements finally come together here: For her questioning, Cooper cleverly puts Connolly on a circular rug that suggests an iceberg; sound designer David McKeever’s choices up the dramatic ante; and Connolly’s castmates—Carpenter as Astor, Lee Mikeska Gardner as the doctor, and the wonderful Vivienne Shub as “the last living Titanic survivor”—round out a team that smoothly handles the hairpin turns of Hatcher’s script. CP