Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - December 16, 2007
The Homecoming by Harold Pinter. Directed by Daniel Sullivan. Set design by Eugene Lee. Costume design by Jess Goldstein. Lighting design by Kenneth Posner. Sound design by John Gromada. Fight Director Rick Sordelet. Cast: Ian McShane, Raúl Esparza, Eve Best, Michael McKean, James Frain, Gareth Saxe.
That would be Eve Best. The star of last season’s revival of A Moon for the Misbegotten is put to even better use here, as... Well, as always, there’s some question to that. Is Best’s character, named Ruth, really who she claims to be: The wife of a British philosopher living and teaching in America, who’s returned to Britain after nine years to introduce her to his brothers, father, and uncle? Is she a whore whose put-on airs can’t fool the coarse men who know the type all too well? Or is she a mother-in-waiting merely biding her time until she finds a family who needs her more than her husband and three children do?
Best answers all these questions in the affirmative. Her Ruth is a great iron wall of femininity, stolid but strangely pliable, detached from the world surrounding her yet also a single heaving breath away from becoming its throbbing heart. All but a zombie in her first scene, who can’t wait to leave the instant she and her husband Teddy (James Frain) arrive at his childhood home in North London, she assumes the sexual and spiritual command accorded her with the grace and inevitability of a princess just crowned queen. At once stately, stumbling, and seductive, she’s every bit the injection of dubious class that Teddy’s lowdown brood requires.
At least in theory. While the cordial, shrugging stiffness Frain brings to Teddy proves a keen interpretation of the stifling conformity Ruth can’t wait to escape, the other men in the family are somewhat less believable as having nowhere to go but up. Without a tribe to elevate, Ruth’s own ascension acquires a meaninglessness that prevents Pinter’s portentous play from being much more than a dark comedy of ill manners.
Yet Esparza plays Lenny with such an unhinged irrationality that his outbursts seem like calculated tantrums, more akin to cap guns than hand grenades. This quality, amplified by his inherent impishness, makes him resembles a boy who didn’t get a much-desired Christmas toy, rather than a grown man fighting for territory, recognition, and respect in a society that doesn’t hold such qualities in especially high esteem.
McShane’s Max, however, has been eroded by exactly these qualities, making him far more convincing as a man from the fringes of existence trying to claw his way up to respectability by any means necessary. He brandishes his walking cane like a medieval weapon, thrusting it into the floor for emphasis or swinging it about to articulate a point as though he doesn’t realize the damage it could do if it connects. It’s a perfect representation of Max’s knowing obliviousness about the destruction he effects around him, and what the lack of a womanly salve has done to his soul.
But if the hunger McShane displays is more all-consuming than the snack-baiting symptoms presented by Michael McKean as Max’s live-in brother Sam, an aging and approximately elegant chauffeur being driven to an early grave by his penchant for keeping secrets, or Gareth Saxe as the youngest brother Joey, a pent-up would-be boxer with the least respect yet for women, it’s also not entirely filling on its own. The transformation of McShane’s Max from withered widower to a shrewd tactician in matters of sexual economics is impossible to pinpoint - the actor’s performance is a collection of outstanding moments linked by threads to tangled to allow a complete character to emerge.
Much the same is true of Sullivan’s direction, which touches on all the necessary points of Pinter’s blistering critique of the changing social landscape but seldom draws greater relevance from it, seeming more like a group reading of TV Guide snippets than a fully coherent dramatic journey. Eugene Lee’s set suggests a distressed naturalistic painting hanging in a dilapidated museum, and nearly everything about Sullivan’s production feels as if it’s trying to live up to that expectation.
It’s only when Best shakes off the vestiges of all this that the show takes on its crucial third dimension. Best occupies her position in the central power play between men and women with all the go-for-broke brio of a wartime fighter pilot, taking charge never with a whimper but a bang, and leaving the men around her cowering in the dust. Undoubtedly, Best’s militaristic maneuvering will prove one of the most dazzling gambits of a season already shaping up to be one of the best for non-musical plays in recent memory.
But for The Homecoming to achieve its full, devastating impact, you must believe that the men are every bit as dangerous. Here, though, they never seem on the edge of tearing into either themselves or the interloper who could destroy or save them, which makes their eventual bargain for redemption an empty resolution to an exciting promise. Best, though, does the best any half-fulfilled potential could ask.