The Caretaker, the 1960 play that became Harold Pinter’s first major success, still sounds – or perhaps again sounds – curiously modern. I say “again” because of the retro-style shows and revivals dominating Broadway, against which Pinter’s non-realistic, half-absurdist, yet nonetheless deeply felt situations and dialogue seem fresh, or freshly burnished. BAM has been a pretty good place to get one’s “modern” theater fix, and Pinter’s great early work has held up well after more than half a century, particularly in this accomplished imported-from-Britain production starring Jonathan Pryce.
Right at the top I should say that some of the sly air of mystery hanging about Christopher Morahan’s staging might come from the British accents, particularly that of Pryce’s gruff tramp, who does a fair amount of barking and whining which, combined with the accent, can make some lines difficult to understand via these American ears. In fact, and maybe this is just a personal weakness of mine, it often takes me a while to “settle in” to a play’s British accents before I start to comprehend most of the lines.
My 10 or 15 minutes of frustration mellowed into rapt enjoyment as the evening moved along. As the play begins, the lonesome sound of a train goes by, and a tough-looking figure strides about a decrepit room full of upended drawers, boxes of junk, dust, and (we easily imagine) drafts. The un-introduced young man leaves just as another man, Aston (the excellent Alan Cox), arrives with old Davies, whom he has rescued from a fracas.
Plays are often touched off by an outlander – either a long-absent family member or, as here, a real stranger – arriving in a household and bringing submerged stresses to the surface. Part of Pinter’s brilliance has been to turn such commonplaces belly-up. This is no normal household, and Davies, which he insists isn’t his real name, no common interloper.
The house turns out to be owned by Aston’s brother Mick (the edgy and funny Alex Hassell). Mick puts up Aston protectively in the wake of Aston’s traumatic treatment for psychological problems. But why Aston in turn takes in Davies, gives him keys, and even clears the junk off his spare bed is intriguingly unclear – is he a simplistically trusting soul, as a character with a mental illness might have been rendered by some playwrights? It seems that way at times, but the suspicion lurks in us that nothing is that simplistic here, and there are certainly no heroes or villains, though in a painfully raw scene Aston convinces us (if no one else) that he has indeed been a kind of victim. So perhaps it’s fellow-feeling that induced him to rescue Davies from the bar fight, but there are no easy answers.
Pryce’s performance is, to make a bad and probably old pun, priceless. Whether cringing against Mick’s violence or pitifully threatening with a tiny knife; whether insisting he doesn’t mutter in his sleep, or desperately seeking a solution to that very problem so Aston won’t kick him out; whether begging for a new pair of shoes or summarily dismissing a supplied pair as ill-fitting, this homeless drifter is a larger-than-life creation in the best sense of that adjective. Pryce hams it up just enough to make us laugh, coloring in his Davies with equal parts needing and needling.
Cox, quite touching as Aston, and Hassell, quirkily tough as Mick, make fine foils of entirely different types for the old man. Another commonplace of drama is that some major character is expected to learn or grow in some way, but the frozen tableau that ends The Caretaker underlines the reality that no one here has really advanced in any way, even though we, through the magic of Pinter’s language and the top-notch skill of the players, have had a fulfilling and thought-provoking experience nonetheless.
The Caretaker runs through June 17 at BAM.