"Have you seen that little man in the loin cloth?"
What do you expect the elderly, confined to a home, to talk about? That’s the crux of the issue here in David Storey’s 38 year old play. Two elderly gentlemen, Harry and Jack, meet in the garden of the complex in which they dwell, sit and talk incessantly, for over a half hour, about almost nothing as they seemingly only half listen to each other. Non sequiturs fly, topics change and alter, disconnection seems to be the only thing they have in common. Ultimately they get up and leave, old friends it would seem out for a morning stroll. They are well dressed, dapper actually, in that particular way that Englishmen seem to be able to pull off at age seventy-five.
They are followed by two women named Marjorie and Kathleen, one with a noticeable limp, who take their place at the lawn furniture table and begin their conversation. Almost as disjointed as that of the men, but not quite, not ever quite, they discuss sexual libido and other subjects not usually on the table for women of a certain age. When the men join them, the conversation becomes both stilted and flirtatious. They go off for lunch. End of Act One.
Williamstown Theatre Festival is ending its very interesting summer season under Nicholas Martin’s new regime with this absurd piece of British theater. They have hired four brilliant actors to portray these somewhat peculiar, somewhat boring people and brilliance combined with boring produces some brilliantly dull moments. Even so, you cannot help pay attention to what’s being said in this almost exclusively "talk" play because you are sure there’s something important about to be revealed. Ultimately there it is.
In the second act, with Alfred, another odd character - seemingly younger than the others - we discover that this home actually houses people whose behavior has placed them into a protective custody situation. Their home with its beautiful, high wall, is a modest form of imprisonment establishment where their behavior is watched and assessed. The elderly are symbols of a society going to Hell in a handbasket and this place may well be that basket. End of Act Two.
Philip Goodwin plays Harry. He is a distinguished gent, possibly a banker, whose vague responses to most things seem to be coming for a lack of interest in his surroundings and his fellows. As played by Goodwin it also seems quite possible that mood-altering drugs might well be in place. Harry has a reputation in this place, an odd set of relationships with desperate women. Goodwin’s Harry seems not to be the type, but that cold remove he plays so well may be a blind behind which his baser nature lurks.
Jack is played by Richard Easton. Here is a man whose bluster and fortitude are never in question. He is always anxious for the next event, the next feat, the next display of his abilities. Easton does bluster better than anyone. He does it so well that you might believe there is a character standing there in front of you. He makes more fully realized a man whose history is never revealed and that takes art.
C. J. Wilson is the odd man out, Alfred, whose physical feats of strength provide some of the minimal genuine comedy in this play. From his appearance and his manner it would seem that he is more an employee in this place, and not a resident, but even that is never made clear by the author, the director, or the actors. He is a first-name character, not well-dressed and that would imply the earlier assumption. Yet, as the second act progresses and Alfred interacts with the others, Wilson’s talents bring him closer and closer to reflecting a slightly younger incarnation of Jack. This melding of the visions makes Alfred, in Wilson’s hands, into the most interesting of people. It also brings to mind questions about the other four that have heretofore not been voiced, in particular: how long have these people been in this place and what brought them here in the first place?
Dana Ivey’s Marjorie is a grumpy, frumpy, doom-and-gloom control freak. She is funniest when she sits back in her chair and pompously begins a new topic of conversation. Her mouth curls downward and her eyes flash. She redefines the word "gorgon" and the only thing missing are knitting needles and a long, colorless, piece of knit-goods without a purpose. Ivey is so funny at times that the play seems to become only about her, but she is a handsomely giving performer who always brings the focus of attention back around to the others.
Clearly her match, and sometimes with less to work with, Roberta Maxwell infuses Kathleen with a femininity that is simply hilarious. She simpers and limps in the oddest way. She giggles at anything sexually suggestive and with that magical sound increases the imagery that so embarrasses her. She is the chief flirt in the quartet and not even Alfred escapes her charms. Maxwell’s performance almost tips the balance of understanding to the reality that is slowly revealed in the second half of the play, but there is an honesty in her playing that keeps us at bay for a long, long while.
Director Joseph Hardy manipulates and moves his people as best he can in the successful setting provided by Tobin Ost. In this play about relationships he creates visually a series of pairings that delude and confuse us. His placement of Harry and Jack, for instance, in Act One where there is no action once Jack joins Harry at table, provides us with a considerable amount of information that later proves false. It is the cleverness Hardy employs in making something out of nothing, or nothing out of something else, that keeps the play as interesting as it is in this production.
Alejo Vietti has given the characters their clothing and each of them is visually defined by what they carry on their backs. Rui Rita has provided the appropriate lighting and his afternoon sky which darkens with the play’s own darkening is brilliantly colorful where the play is brilliantly colorless. It is an excellent achievement.
This is an oddment, a British play about nothing but social judgement. It is a hard play to like, but with the likes of Eastman, Ivey, Maxwell and Goodwin, hard not to enjoy. Just be prepared to listen to interminable chats about very little of importance or interest and be glad you’re visiting, and not living at, the "Home."
Richard Easton as the face of "Home"; photo: T Charles Erickson
Richard Easton and Philip Goodwin: photo: T Charles Erickson
Roberta Maxwell (seated) and Dana Ivey; photo: T Charles Erickson
Home plays at the Williamstown Theatre Festival through August 24.