An air of aloneness hovers over director Christopher Morahan’s production of Harold Pinter’s The Caretaker, now playing at BAM’s Harvey Theater in a co-production from Theater Royal Bath and Liverpool Everyman. As the production begins, a kindly, mostly quiet man named Aston (Alan Cox) is letting a homeless tramp, Davies (Jonathan Pryce), into his apartment after an apparent tiff at a local bar.
Since Davies has no place to go, Aston is quick (unusually so) to offer him a spare bed in the apartment for as long as he needs, until he’s back on his feet. What Aston fails to tell Davies is that the bed actually belongs to his brother Mick (Alex Hassell), a rough sort who also happens to be the landlord of the building.
When Aston leaves the apartment the next morning, Davies experiences Mick’s brusque ways first hand when he’s mistaken for an intruder. After Davies talks Mick down, Mick, who is entering the building trade himself, explains that he’s entrusted the renovation of the house to his brother Aston and offers Davies the position of caretaker if he’ll have it.
You see, each of the play’s three characters is constantly transferring his responsibilities. Mick entrusts the house to Aston, who dreams of building a shed out back but never does, preferring to hoard useless objects instead. Both brothers separately entrust their home to Davies, and Davies in turn shirks his own caretaking responsibilities – blaming Aston’s troubled past (he’s spent time in a mental institution, undergoing shock therapy) for the lack of improvements around the place and sloughing off Mick’s request for references by reminding the brothers repeatedly that his official papers are in Sidcup, a district in southeast London to which he’d go in order to fetch them if ever the dreary weather would clear.
Why, if there’s such despair present, is this production of Pinter’s first big commercial success, so funny? Much of the humor of the production, and the element of humanity that manages to cut through its protagonists’ despair, can be credited to Jonathan Pryce, who, as the tramp Davies, turns in the kind of bravura tragicomic performance that comes along only a few times in a generation (BAM, as an institution, is a leader at presenting these kinds of performances – Derek Jacobi’s Lear last season was another).
In the same way that Beckett’s tramps, in Endgame and Waiting for Godot, find humor in desperation, Davies stands out as one of Pinter’s finest creations, an instantly likable (and yet instantly off-putting) figure – incurably racist (he likes to natter on about “the Blacks”) but, because of the extent of his initial gratitude to Aston, strangely sympathetic.
As written by Pinter, he’s a smarmy old codger, picky about the size and shape of his shoes, about the placement of the stove in the apartment, and the drafty windows, in gift-horse-in-the-mouth ways that most New Yorkers will recognize from encounters with beggars to whom they’ve offered food only to have their presumably well-meaning attempts at kindness rebuked because of choosiness.
Pryce takes the text of the play and adds his own ingenious, chameleon-like tics – waggling his tongue at importune moments and whistling frequently, drawing on elements of clowning to build a physical vocabulary for his character that’s entirely his own (aside from his recognizable face, he’s virtually unrecognizable, his vocal delivery altered totally from my last encounter with Pryce, as Shelly Levene in Glengarry Glen Ross in the West End). His is the character whose attitude changes most over the course of the play, though he also remains — at his core — fundamentally stagnant. Only Pinter could write a story so compelling with a protagonist so maddeningly stubborn and so apparently gleeful to inhabit.
Equally effective are Alan Cox as the wilting Aston, who is particularly fine in the play’s second half, when the lights around him dim and his tragic past is revealed in a gorgeous almost-soliloquy, and Alex Hassell, who is blowsy and commanding in the less fully-drawn role of Mick. Though the play is a far-ish cry from family drama in the traditional kitchen-sink sense, it’s the inability of these two brothers, who communicate largely through Davies, to connect that is ultimately the driving force of the piece, and these two supporting actors serve this subtext well.
The play, which like most of Pinter’s contains many themes on which to chew, features fewer of the distracting archetypes and abstruse symbols that make others of his plays (The Homecoming) more maddeningly inaccessible (no tomatoes, please!). Featuring Pryce in top form, it’s a blazingly clear production of a now-classic play that deserves to be seen again by today’s theatergoers as an example of an extraordinary – and often extraordinarily funny – drama about ordinary, even despairing, lives.