Regional Reviews: St. Louis
Also see Richard's review of The Trivia Job
We might still have had plenty of warning, because eight years after Orwell put his own indelible stamp on the rise of Big Brother in his novel "1984," along came Harold Pinter in 1957 with a play about a government run "rest home," or perhaps an asylum, with many of the same dark overtones. Only here, there's also a lot more humor and mystery.
Of course, Pinter is not Orwell, and Orwell is not Pinter. Things are purposely muddled and confused in The Hothouse, making the audience itself the victim of Pinter's totally different version of "double-speak," coming in deceptively repetitive dialog. In fact, with all its ridiculous corruption, and a elaborate sense of misguided propriety, this play actually might have been a powerful influence on Terry Gilliam's movie Brazil.
Wisely, though, director Suki Peters avoids crossing over into the Monty Python style that introduced us to Mr. Gilliam, though it could have happened easily. This Hothouse has a tenor born purely of the words and music of Pinter's text itself, where the experts are both maddeningly dull and prickly-precise, with consequences that are usually impossibly awful. And it's all strangely vibrant, despite that pretense of dim, staid propriety.
Robert Ashton is gruff and befuddled as Roote, who's in charge of the rest home, seeming to exist in a fog of whiskey and post-war officiousness. His funniest moments come in strange little glimpses of unguarded, foolish charm, or choking rage, like a minor league Stalin. And Elizabeth Graveman is excellent in the more-or-less straight ahead role of the resident femme fatale, though she may only be a symbol of each bureaucrat's own self-worship.
Then we come to the young men. And I'll be honest, for about ten years, I was really wondering where the next big batch of bright young actors was ever going to come fromup till maybe two years ago, I suppose. Now they're just falling out of the trees all around us, and might possibly be the best batch ever for St. Louis theater. What a stroke of luck for Pinter, and for the venerable West End Players Guild, too.
Zach Wachter is mysterious and starchy as Gibbs, utterly disappearing into the role. He starts the action by announcing that one isolated patient has given birth to a baby boy on Christmas morning. But then he must politely try to make this clear to Colonel Roote as many times as necessary, in that Pinteresque style, where truth is like a tuning fork: vibrating much too fast to ever be seen clearly at all.
Pete Winfrey, as Lamb, is delightfully awkward and funny in a scene with Ms. Graveman, and later (right before intermission) breathtaking as the search for the baby's father goes forward. This has really been his year for good roles done greatly.
And Roger Erb as Lush is mysterious in his own way, with a lot of very persistent questions about that Christmas birth. This begins with a scene (see photo) in which Mr. Erb seems very much like he's going to run off with the entire show in his back pocket, in just five minutes' time. His Lush has a great low-key style, and an evil playfulness.
But something in me is slightly aghast that a great talent like Nicholas Kelly is nearly pushed aside by all the other young fellows, as a humble attendant. Elsewhere, Matt Hanify does nicely, helping to wrap things up in the end.
There's a great wealth of physical comedy, thanks to director Peters. And afterward, you come out the other side not quite knowing what to think, which is (almost certainly) a paradise for Pinter.
Through November 10, 2013, at the Union Avenue Christian Church, 733 Union Blvd (a block north of Delmar, with parking off the lobby). For more information go to www.westendplayers.org or visit them on Facebook at West-End-Players.
Photo by John Lamb