The Caretaker by Harold Pinter. Directed by David Jones. Set design by John Lee Beatty. Costume design by Jane Greenwood. Lighting design by Peter Kaczorowski. Sound design by Scott Lehrer. Cast: Patrick Stewart, Kyle MacLachlan, Aiden Gillen.
The Caretaker starts off with as shrill and piercing a sound as you're likely to hear all season: total silence. Just as laughter or applause may build in some shows to wall-shaking proportions, so does the complete absence of sound kicking off this new production of Harold Pinter's play at the American Airlines Theatre.
Of course, silence is one of Pinter's stocks in trade, and its utilization here is certainly enough to shut out the noise and bustle of New York for the better part of three hours. In Pinter's world, silence can cut just as deep as spoken words, and a single phrase uttered often enough in repetition can have a devastating impact on the characters in the play or the audience observing it.
As directed by David Jones, this production successfully brings much of that out. It's an all-out free-for-all of flying secrets, quick reversals, and gleeful deception, all designed to illuminate the complexities of the play's central relationships, while maintaining balance to the uncomfortable familiarity between brothers Mick (Aidan Gillen) and Aston (Kyle MacLachlan) that will be upset by the arrival of Davies (Patrick Stewart) in the West London home the brothers at least occasionally share.
Davies, a down-on-his-luck older man, begins as Aston's invited guest, but slowly gains control over Aston's room and life (which are occasionally indistinguishable). Davies's effects at first appear to be inconsequential - displacing many of Aston's accumulated possessions so that he will have a place to sleep, making noises in his sleep that disrupt Aston's rest, making demands on Aston's hospitality, and so on - but it soon becomes evident Davies is becoming something far more dangerous: an unwilling pawn in the brothers' ongoing conflict.
As the play evolves, the exact details of that conflict and its combatants get called more and more into question. Each of the men is hiding something from the others, and each is at least marginally incapable of dealing with life on its own terms. Aston finds solace in his collection (most of it little more than junk), Mick is simultaneously bent on looking out for and tormenting his troubled brother, and the exact identity and motives of the homeless Davies can never definitively be determined.
Jones's work most fervently thrives on that sense of the foreboding unknown; his dealing with the more tangible aspects of Pinter's reality is not quite as strong. There's no palpable atmosphere of suffocation or claustrophobia, no hint that the oppressive appearance of the room and its contents might, at least in part, drive these characters' actions. John Lee Beatty's set is the most visible symptom of this problem: it's a fine basic evocation of a dark hole-in-the-wall room, but it's spread out over too large a space, leaving Aston's errant knick-knacks appearing more as strategically placed trenches than unavoidable obstacles. (Peter Kaczorowski's lights and Jane Greenwood's costumes seem better suited to Jones's production.)
The constantly annoyed turncoat personality Gillen brings to Mick is just right, his apparently instantaneous switches in attitude and allegiance thoroughly believable whenever they occur, and he's creepily threatening every moment he's onstage. As Davies, Stewart casts something of a commanding figure, tapping into his character's inherent desire for control over his life or someone else's. Most of his lines are layered with meaning in that quintessential Patrick Stewart way, suggesting Davies might well be aware of what he's saying even when he claims he's not. (The exact nature of Davies's befuddlement is never thoroughly defined in Stewart's portrayal; that's most likely by design.) The unfortunate side effect of this, though, is that Stewart never completely vanishes into Davies; it's impossible not to be as keenly aware of the actor as the character he's playing.
Nor is it with MacLachlan, though his contributions are ultimately more damaging. His portrayal seems to lack some of the depth of his co-stars', and he's missing much of the conviction that they both display in great quantities. As a stage actor, MacLachlan seems to be giving a fine screen performance, so underplayed that it's almost destructively at odds with what Stewart and Gillen are doing. He never justifies Aston's need to collect so much garbage as treasure, or finds out why Aston's desire to build a shed is truly an inborn need - these are significant points that are addressed in the text but not MacLachlan's performance.
Yet somehow, this production still works; it's built upon a solid enough foundation. If it's never an ideal production of The Caretaker, it's always thoroughly professional and sharp and shiny enough to keep your interest up until the play's final, ambiguous scene has reached its conclusion. That scene, much like the play's first, climaxes with the almost endless, and deafening, silence that suggests, occasional missteps or no, this production's purpose and promise can always be heard loud and clear.