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In Sunday’s New York Times, absurdist playwright Janusz Glowacki asserts—under the headline “Given the Realities, It’s Impossible to Be Absurd”—that in a world where Poland is becoming a bastion of capitalism and East Germany a neo-Nazi haven, absurdism is necessarily passé. Why hurl characters into the void, he wonders, if the real world is turning context and meaning upside down, seemingly affirming absurdism’s chief tenet—that understanding and communication are impossible?

“Haven’t Beckett’s and Ionesco’s plays become quite naturalistic today?” Glowacki argues, citing two-thirds of the existentialist troika responsible for rewriting theatrical rule-books in the late ’50s. Note that he doesn’t mention Pinter, the troika’s third third. Pinter’s plays were always naturalistic; that was what gave them their edge of menace. But in a sense, because they were based in reality, they were more radical than were the works of his absurdist confreres. Just look at the disquieting spell cast by his often-imitated, 33-year-old classic, The Caretaker. Even in a Studio Theater revival that emphasizes the play’s humor rather than its danger, there’s no escaping the ominousness that comes from our ina bility to “read” unreadable characters. Not knowing which way a man is going to jump is one thing in a Beckettian void, quite another in a run-down apartment filled with potential weapons.

Which is where we find ourselves as the lights come up on The Caretaker. A garrulous, scruffy old man named Davies (or possibly Jenkins) is offered shelter from the rain by a dim, impenetrable, vaguely threatening fellow named Aston. Though Davies can detect no logical reason for this generosity—Aston doesn’t seem to want company, or rent, or anything, really—the old man quickly moves in and begins searching for ways to milk his slow-witted host for all he’s worth. He’s stopped cold, however, by the arrival of Aston’s quick-witted brother, Mick, who is also vaguely threatening and proves equally impenetrable. Davies spends the rest of the play trying to draw the brothers out, hoping to gain some advantage but unable to do so because he can never connect psychologically with either of them.

Neither can the audience, of course, and since the old man’s reliability is suspect—he can’t even be definite about his name—there’s no way to feel confident about what anyone will do. Where many stagers might try to make patrons feel anxious about that uncertainty, director Joy Zinoman has chosen instead to emphasize comedy. When Richard Thompson’s hulking Aston, who looks a bit like a skinhead in his ill-fitting greatcoat, reaches unexpectedly into his boot during a talk with Davies, what he pulls out is a screwdriver with which he’ll attempt to fix a broken toaster. He might just as easily have pulled out a knife. He might, in fact, have used a knife to fix the toaster. But Zinoman isn’t after suspense of a horror-movie sort. She’s trying to illuminate the subtler hazards arising from man’s inability to know his fellows—theloneliness, despair, and detachment that plague contemporary society.

Pinter is still, as critic Walter Kerr wrote in 1968, “the only [dramatist] who writes existential plays existentially.” That is to say, where Beckett begins with a concept and illustrates it through the existence or circumstances of his characters—demonstrating in Happy Days, for instance, that humankind is earthbound by burying his protagonist waist-deep in sand—Pinter begins and ends with only the existence of his characters. Their essence is unknowable, their nature unresolved. Concepts must be arrived at later, if at all.

This leaves quite a bit up to the actor. If Davies, Aston, and Mick don’t stand for anything (except, perhaps, isolation), and don’t reveal anything about themselves during the course of the evening, then their actions can easily seem arbitrary. That isn’t the case at Studio, largely because Thompson’s haunting performance anchors the production emotionally. Lurching heavily around his detritus-cluttered apartment, he seems huge and hugely vulnerable (despite the skittishness he inspires in Davies), eloquently limning a soul gone cold. He even makes expressive use of Aston’s dead-to-the-world monotone (the character has been lobotomized by shock treatments) during a harrowingly explicit monologue about his stay in a mental hospital. By contrast, Jon Tindle’s high-pitched, long-haired Mick buzzes gnatlike through the play, never seeming to light anywhere for long. Together they perplex and baffle Davies, who, as played by Emery Battis, is nervous and calculating, never making a move that isn’t inherently defensive. The performances are complemented in production by Russell Metheny’s spookily realistic setting, the steady rain that falls onstage, and the eerie shadows conjured up by Daniel MacLean Wagner’s lighting.

Realism is also the order of the day in Source Theater’s Distant Fires, where designer Michael Stepowany has set up a thoroughly convincing Ocean City construction site complete with sand, girders, reinforcing rods, and drying concrete. But while director Pat Murphy Sheehy has set a castful of equally convincing laborers to working diligently, they can’t construct a drama out of the raw materials provided by playwright Kevin Heelan.

The author sets up a conflict between black and white construction workers, but for some reason, he’s not willing to bring it to closure. As the play begins, there’s an opening for one additional bricklayer on the site. Thomas (Vincent J. Brown), an industrious, well-qualified black laborer who cares deeply about the quality of his work, wants the job. So does a semiarticulate redneck named Beauty (Christopher Lane). When the white site-boss (Tom Quinn) claims his hands are tied by the bricklayers’ union, the crew’s black activist (Michael Jerome Johnson) guesses what the outcome will be and sets about getting drunk. Another black worker (Frederick Strother) urges that everyone just do his job. And a white teen-ager (Michael Dennis Johnson), for whom this is just a summer job, panics at the thought that he might find himself in the center of a racial altercation. Complicating matters are the distant fires of the title—race riots in nearby Cambridge, Md., that make themselves felt by the faint whiff of smoke in the air.

Heelan’s soliloquies—nearly every character seems to have at least one longish speech—don’t ring true very often, but the interplay and back talk between characters do. Choreographed by Sheehy into a persuasive work crew, the actors shove wheelbarrows and one another around the setting with relaxed naturalness and camaraderie. They even lay concrete with conviction. But the play is headed for such a predictable conclusion, and so consistently backs away from the confrontations it sets up, that by midpoint, there’s virtually no tension.