The Caretaker by Harold Pinter. Directed by Eric Hill
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
“Not a bad pair of shoes…”
James Barry as Mick; photo: Kevin Sprague
Every time I see Harold Pinter’s early classic, “The Caretaker” (now playing at the Berkshire Theatre Festival in Stockbridge, MA) written in 1960 I get a strange sense that this play is really about four men and not the three men we see in the attic room in a house in west London. Mick and Aston, two brothers with individual axes to grind about life and about one another, share in the ownership, occupancy and future of this crumbling old building. It is an almost unbearable relationship that they share, really, and not just an old house. Each has his place in its limited and limiting spaces. Neither one is completely comfortable here, and they share space only and not dreams for it or themselves as a unit.
Into this uneasy union comes Davies, or Jenkins, a down-on-his-luck sort of gent, a street-smart older man with a cantankerous disposition and a sleep disorder. At Aston’s behest, Davies takes over Mick’s bed and even his shoes. At Mick’s request he agrees to become the building’s caretaker and accidental decorator. In their relationships with this stranger the two brothers become more intertwined with each other than they have anticipated and that new closeness brings out the worst in them, not the best. Davies becomes an inarticulate father figure, not a good fit for his intellect nor for his abilities. The missing “Dad,” that elusive fourth man in this show, is really what this play is about: whose son is Dad’s son, whose father is the real one. Much of this remains unspoken, but it is clearly what the playing is about in this upstairs store-room that is the only occupiableroom in what was Dad’s house – his things are scattered everywhere in plain sight, but no one really sees them. His shoes are offered to Davies who owns no shoes, but they don’t fit him. Not really.
In the Unicorn production at the BTF, this show opens the 80th anniversary season with a combination of brilliant and sketchy elements. Eric Hill’s incisive direction is on the right track from the opening moment, showcasing the lonely and frightened Mick,to the last one in which the betrayed Davies finally makes the demands that every father in every subsequent Pinter play with one always makes of his family. Hill has planted the six visible feet firmly in the tenement like space that Davies cannot dessert and Mick cannot transform and Aston cannot make accommodating. He has also established the missing pair of feet in the present pair of shoes. He does it with subtlety and grace, but he makes that absentee landlord father into the central focus of the play.
He is helped mightily by a wonderful set, designed by Jonathan Wentz that completely portrays the cheapness of these four lives. Yoshinori Tanokura gives the men the clothing they deserve and even a second pair of shoes for Davies are visibly period and clearly not right for him. That is perfection for this play.
James Barry is a wonderful Mick. He is dark, plays dark and when he lightens up to fantasize a future that can never be his own, he brings into the light a side of the man that he himself has never seen before. It is wonderful acting. His brother Aston is portrayed by Tommy Schrider in a multi-faceted performance that takes him from nearlystupefied to clearly deadly. This is also a memorable performance linking the young actor clearly to a role he should explore in more venues as soon as possible. It is a defining role.
Jonathan Epstein is Davies, Jenkins, Dad, all the older men for these two foundlings who faun on him. One of his best performances ever, Epstein plays a quirky, dirty character who could scrub himself for ten solid days with lye-based soap and still not emerge from the bath clean. He brings out the humanity in Davies without stressing it in any way, but he leaves it on the wash line for all to see. He also is stimulating as the quirky unknown. While we never get to know this man, we feel all that he feels, experience everything he experiences. Epstein opens himself to the moments in such a way that he allows the audience to be in the play, see the realities as he sees them. It is among his best work, ever.
What holds the play at bay, just a little – the sketchy aspect of this show – is exactly what made last year’s Unicorn opener so difficult: Matthew E. Adelson’s amateurish lighting. Once again we are treated to well-lit Unicorn theater side walls as light splays up the stairwells and onto the upper level seating areas. He seems unable to distinguish night from day – again. His color choices are enigmatic in a play that is also enigmatic and could profit from a vision in light to help clarify emotional context, the reality that so distinguishes Pinter’s writing. Thankfully, J Hagenbuckle’s sound design and original music distracts us occasionally from the outside fifth and sixth walls (the fourth wall has its own lighting defects in Act Three).
A heavy and heavy-hearted comedy, this is a production that brings the hidden to light and leaves us wondering what might be going on in our own attics. It’s a search for truths, a worthwhile event for the theater in the region and one that should certainly be seen for all the good things in it. But it isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, so go pre-warned: this is heavy stuff and it may confuse you, but what’s wrong with that? Thinking, I think, is a good think.
Jonathan Epstein as Davies; photo: Kevin Sprague
Tommy Schrider as Aston; photo: Kevin Sprague
The Caretaker plays at the Unicorn Theatre on the Berkshire Theatre Festival property in Stockbridge, MA on Route 7 through June 28. Tickets are $39-$44 with students who have a valid ID receiving a 50% discount. For information or reservations call the box office at 413-298-5576.