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Nobel Prizes have a way of sanctifying artists, and Harold Pinter has never been someone who would take well to sainthood. So perhaps Longacre Lea is doing him a favor by staging his The Hothouse with more than a touch of vaudeville—drinks splashed in faces, broad double-takes, pratfalls, and even an exploding cigar (well, a sputtering one anyway).
An officious boss spews his punchlines (“I don’t like having a thing repeated and repeated…and repeated”) with the timing of a music-hall comic. A Jeeves-like assistant drops his jaw and ogles a glass of Scotch as if he’d just crossed the Sahara. A factotum arrives, inexplicably with ceiling tile in hand, and is soon tumbling clownishly off platforms. A high-heeled vamp inflames passions with charms that are alternately icy and smoldering. All this even before the electrodes come out to play.
Playfulness in Pinter productions has never been a bad thing, given the reverence that sometimes attaches to the creator of both the Theater of Menace and that speech-punctuating hiccup known as the Pinter pause. But it might be a better thing in Kathleen Akerley’s antic production if it led to actual hilarity. At the Callan Theatre, the clowning seems a tad arbitrary, less a tool for making the occasional pause pregnant with meaning than an end in itself.
Which is not to suggest that the play is a romp. Written in 1958 but not licensed for production until 1980, it has a decidedly sinister setting: a state institution of indeterminate purpose where unseen “patients” are referred to by numbers rather than their long-forgotten names. On a Christmas Day so unseasonably warm that the recurring line “the snow has turned to slush” becomes a running joke, an oblivious superintendent named Roote (Michael John Casey) has confused two residents: 6547 and 6549. This proves awkward—one of them has died and the other has given birth to a child fathered by a staffer—and as Roote’s assistant, Gibbs (Michael Glenn), tries to ascertain both cause of death and identity of father, all manner of dire secrets will be unearthed. There are scenes of torture, tales of carnage, amplified groans emanating from nowhere in particular, and by evening’s end the whole staff has been slaughtered. As I say, the jokes have an air of arbitrariness about them.
For a play written between The Birthday Party and The Caretaker, the more intimately subversive classics that made Pinter’s reputation nearly a half-century ago, The Hothouse is startlingly unsubtle. Peppered with jests—at points it almost feels as if the playwright were angling to write sketches for Beyond the Fringe—it’s more about bureaucratic absurdity than cosmic ambiguity. Where most of Pinter’s early plays are ominously oblique, this one offers comic riffs on administrative jargon and official caprice to suggest the malignity of governmental control. In Pinter’s later plays, those themes would darken and grow grimmer, but here, with Soviet asylums the evident inspiration and the playwright still a 20-something pup, the treatment is brisk and bluntly stated.
Of course, companies have been known to tap points gently home with sledgehammers, and when it comes to theatrical absurdity, Longacre Lea has mostly had a delicate touch. In its physical trappings, that’s true again here. Designer Elizabeth Jenkins McFadden has provided not a seedy hospital-like setting but a horticultural hothouse where ineptitude has long since taken root, and staff insecurity and competition flourish like weeds. Characters scheme and manipulate, and as they do, you note that one seems to have chlorophyll coursing through her veins, another greenish moss creeping up the nape of his neck. This is an institution where corruption quite literally grows on the inhabitants.
On the other hand, there’s no particularity to the institution’s ecosystem in performance, so what’s happening in it never really feels urgent. Not the office politics, not the rape of a patient, not even the interrogation-by-torture sequence that ends the first act. The play, not having been allowed to germinate in its own era, feels like an oddity in ours—its accent British, its inspiration Cold War, its rhythms music hall. Governments have changed in the interim, theatrical styles have changed, we’ve changed, but the paranoid regimes that create gulags haven’t. And for the play to work, something needs to be made of that fact.
There’s a description early on of the leader who “laid the foundation stone” for the mess everyone’s in: “He was sanctioned by the Ministry, revered by the populace, subsidized by the State. He had set in motion an activity for humanity, of humanity, and by humanity, and the keyword was ‘order.’”
That line really ought to resonate today, but at the Callan Theatre, it just registers as nicely phrased. And with Guantánamo’s inmates a handy new set of nameless numbers, and with governmental incompetence hardly on the wane—and yes, with that Nobel Prize on Pinter’s shelf—it’s hard to escape the feeling that an opportunity is being missed.