"I don't think it's a literal father."
Hearing those words during intermission at the Atlantic Theater Company's current double bill of Harold Pinter plays only helped cement for me something I'd long suspected: Pinter is both a blessing and a curse for the theatre.
His status as the former is firmly established, not just by well-versed theatregoers who've been braving his works for nearly 50 years, but even by the Nobel Foundation, which awarded him the Nobel Prize in Literature two months ago. Pinter is, and has long been, a reigning king of the theatrically absurd and the absurdly theatrical. He's always known instinctively that occasionally the most deafening sounds in a play can be the silences that fall between, or even within, words. And his plays are invariably provocative.
Hence his curseworthy characteristic: His plays are impossible to stop thinking about or talking about. The gentleman behind me at the Atlantic was compelled by the first offering - The Room, likewise Pinter's first play, from 1957 - to analyze and explain every detail of it to his bewildered wife. One can easily understand her confusion: Pinter's plays exist mostly, if not entirely, in the eyes and mind of the viewer.
What that man saw, what I saw, or what anyone that day saw who couldn't stop buzzing about and questioning it... Well, it might not be what you see. In truth, it probably won't be. But that's a sign of powerful, living theatre, and when it truly affects you, the specifics are ultimately of minimal importance. So it's possible to just sit back, relax, and enjoy The Room and its companion piece, Celebration (1999), and figure out what it means for you later.
In these productions, which are impeccably cast and wisely directed by Neil Pepe, you might well find that easier to do than ever before. They rank among the clearest, most accessible Pinter works I've seen performed live, and carry a dramatic and emotional immediacy too often missing from plays by writers (such as Pinter, Albee, and Beckett) not always known for their straightforward clarity. But Pepe and his actors make doing it well look like child's play, and unlock more inherent simplicity in these shows than is usually the case in larger, more elaborate, and frequently more leaden productions.
The Room, which focuses on a woman named Rose (chillingly played by Mary Beth Peil) and the security she slowly learns she can never depend on, seems here like a haunting, wintry fable about the dangers that always exist just outside our field of vision. Celebration, as unsettling in its rampant humor as The Room is in its implicit sorrow, examines the diners at two tables in London's most expensive, exclusive restaurant, and how their questionably lived lives impact - and are impacted by - the eatery's brittle employees.
It may at first seem that the two works, so wildly different in tone, have little in common. But a common theme - the desire for a unique identity, and the freedom to live it to the fullest - eventually resonates so strongly, that it becomes difficult to imagine one being performed without the other.
Yes, an anxious, gregarious waiter (David Pittu, a study in comic understatement) might mask his longing for acceptance and safety with barely credible stories about his grandfather's relationships with every famous figure of the 1930s. But he's just as pitiable as Rose, who's as trapped by her circumstances - and the imminent threat of nonexistence - as she is by her loutish husband (Thomas Jay Ryan) and the impish landlord (Peter Maloney) who can never be determined to be coming or going. And the illusions Rose casts to preserve herself are no different from those of Celebration's celebrants, who lie to their spouses and themselves about their pasts, futures, and barely memorable presents. And on and on.
Peil's Rose and Pittu's waiter most astound with their intensity, transcending traditional notions of "comic" or "serious" performances by existing fully as both at the same time. But the other performers do equally impressive work: Of special note are Betsy Aidem and Carolyn McCormick as Celebration's leading reactive wives, Brennan Brown and Kate Blumberg as two superbly mannered ruffians, and Christa Scott-Reed as a melancholy maîtres d'hôtel.
And who could forget Earle Hyman? Entering near the end of The Room as Riley, a ghostly specter who conveys to Rose uncomfortable news of her past (or, perhaps, the present she'd rather ignore), he creates a hulking, lumbering presence and a withering figure whose advanced age and lack of eyesight nonetheless make him nearly as frightening to us as he is to Rose. He also brings with him the understanding that Pinter, not yet 30 in 1957, was nonetheless working at full perceptive strength, able to effortlessly surprise with something at once perfectly right and strangely inexplicable.
It's Riley, by the way, who so inspired the man. "He's not a real black man," he said as intermission began to wane, still puzzling out the specifics of what he instinctively knew worked. If I never heard the end of his conversation, I nonetheless have faith that he eventually was able to articulate exactly what made the play so powerful to him. As for myself, I'm on the fence about whether Riley is truly a black man. Pinter, though, unquestionably remains the real deal.
Celebration and The Room