Monday, June 4, 2012

The Caretaker: An Intriguing Character Study

By Judd Hollander
Photos by Richard Termine

Harold Pinter's “The Caretaker,” first presented in 1960, makes a triumphant return to the stage with a production at the Brooklyn Academy of Music that literally crackles with wit, pain and raw human emotion.

Aston (Alan Cox), a quiet, middle-aged sort, meets and befriends an elderly and boisterous fellow named Davies (Jonathan Pryce), a person possessing a rather volatile temper and who has just gotten fired from the latest in a series of menial jobs due to his inability to keep his rage in check. With Davies needing a place to stay, Aston offers him the spare bed in his flat, part of a series of apartments in the same block of houses, the place consisting of a somewhat jumbled collection of boxes, dusty blankets and pillows, and various other implements, all of which are long overdue for a cleaning.

Instinctively hesitant to trust anyone, Davies soon begins to make himself at home, Aston even giving him a spare key so he can come and go as he pleases. That is, until Davies runs afoul of Mick (Alex Hassell), Aston's younger brother, who starts to beat Davies to a pulp, only to then begin a sort of monologue laced with comedic comments and deadly intentions, as the stunned and scared Davies can only struggle to understand what's going on.

In short order, Davies finds himself working for both Aston and Mick and acting as the caretaker for the place. All too soon, however, Davies' abrasive personality begins to tell on both brothers, with the aged man playing off one sibling against the other until things reach an emotional and confrontational conclusion.

What's interesting about Pinter's work is that so much of it is open to interpretation, with meanings upon multiple meanings found in his various texts. In this case, there's the question of just who Davies is, he himself saying he's using an assumed name. “The Caretaker” could also be viewed as a cautionary warning regarding taking in strangers on a whim. For as Davies gets more and more accustomed to his new surroundings, he begins to want more and more from his hosts. His little complaints and asking for favors slowly switching to requests he expects to have honored and eventually, to his making outright demands. There is also the possibility these three men are all manifestations of the same person, as there is a through line which could be drawn between the different characters in the flow of the play.

Whatever one chooses to take from the work, there is no denying the power of the script, which shows three perhaps not-so-different human beings all none too happy with how the world has treated them. Pryce is fantastic as the belligerent Davies, a man always on the lookout for the next angle he can play, the next deal he can make and the next bargain he can strike. His continual bantering regarding a pair of shoes, or whether the bedroom window should be open or closed are just two such examples of this. Aston is the most quietly pathetic of the trio, a sort of almost invisible milquetoast who never seems to finish anything he starts. Yet at one point, when he drifts into a quiet admission regarding his past, the actor completely and powerfully commands the stage. Hassell is good as Mick, the least defined character of the three, but clearly an angry young man with big dreams and a wry sense of humor. The latter a quality people may not always appreciate, especially when one feels an aura of threatening danger continually emanating from him.

Christopher Morahan's direction is excellent, keeping the action moving smoothly with a mixture of humor, drama and pathos and, just as important, never letting the story feel overlong or bloated. Morahan also takes pains to make sure the actors never completely pigeonhole their characters in regards to who they are and what they want, resulting in intriguing portrayals which sometimes yield more questions than answers. Credit must also go to Bret Yount's fight direction, none of which seems overly staged or phony.

The set by Eileen Diss is nicely realistic, showing a cluttered mixture of one person's life - and possibly others - via a space filled with memories unspoken and valuables long since turned to dust. There's also a nice little maguffin of a locked box that Davies tries to open, but never seems able to.

Lighting by Colin Grenfell works well, and costumes by Dany Everett are appropriate to the characters and situations presented. Sound design by Tom Lishman also fits nicely into the story.

“The Caretaker” is a riveting tale of three men going nowhere despite their supposed plans and dreams. The script, technical work and actors' performances, all combine to make it a show well worth seeing.

“The Caretaker”
Written by Harold Pinter

Featuring: Alex Hassell (Mick), Alan Cox (Aston), Jonathan Pryce (Davies)

Understudies: Gareth Williams (for Davies), Liam Reilly (for Mick/Aston)

Directed by Christopher Morahan
Set Design: Eileen Diss
Costume Design: Dany Everett
Lighting Design: Colin Grenfell
Sound Design: Tom Lishman
Fight Direction: Bret Yount
Assistant Director: Will Wrightson
Presented by Theatre Royal Bath Productions/Liverpool Everyman and Playhouse

Brooklyn Academy of Music
Harvey Theater
651 Fulton Street
Tickets: 718-636-4100 or

Running Time: Two Hours, 30 Minutes
Closes: June 17, 2012

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