“So, the message of this play is that women are whores and that's the way men like them?”, asked my companion, looking drained and dumbfounded as we exited the Cort Theatre where a stunning revival of “The Homecoming” is now playing.
“I suppose that's one fair takeaway,” I replied, knowing full well that with a Harold Pinter play, it's useless to reduce the multi-layered shenanigans to a single, concrete dictum. Uncertainty and paradox are his trademarks, after all, so one interpretation is as good as another. The 2005 Nobel Prize winner prefers to make his audience's imaginations do some of the heavy lifting, and hard work has its rewards.
When the diabolical drama, about an estranged son and his sexpot wife revisiting his North London boyhood home, premiered some 40 years ago, audiences were baffled, even outraged, at the show's cryptic, shockingly sexual content. Today, where salacious scenes are just a few mouse-clicks away, “The Homecoming” registers closer to the realm of possibility, and thus more satisfying than ever before.
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From the get-go, as Max (Ian McShane) and his son, Lenny (Raul Esparza), carp and snarl at each other, we suspect they're the most dastardly damaged family this side of “August: Osage County,” the new drama that has jaws dropping and tongues wagging this season – and might well not exist if Pinter hadn't first forged the template. Max is just as mean to his brother, the chauffer (Michael McKean), and another son, Joey (Gareth Saxe), a demolitions worker with dreams of being a champion boxer.
Lenny's less-than-respectable occupation, it should be said, reveals itself slowly, and that's just one of the countless, creepy delights of this astounding production.
Pinter's drama of strife and sex is more accessible than ever.
When Teddy (James Frain), a third son of Max, now a philosophy professor in America who's the only successful one of the bunch, pays his family a surprise visit and introduces Ruth (Eve Best), the walls, so to speak, really start crumbling down. Voices are raised. Recriminations are rehashed. Thighs are exposed, then parted.
Just when we're tempted to label the proceedings misogynist claptrap, Ruth shows that, far from being a common “tart,” she is taking charge of, and perhaps taking care of, these starved man-children, who are suffering from the loss of their long-gone Mum.
In Pinter, master-poet of the ambiguous, it's not so much the plot points but the contrapuntally charged spaces in between that matters. And director Daniel Sullivan has struck the perfect pitch between the abstruse and the astounding – no small feat. For his part, Pinter fills these spaces with rapier working-class British dialogue that crackles and zings, as well as his classic pregnant pauses.
Sullivan elicits some of the most gripping performances you'll see on a Broadway stage this season. McShane, best known for HBO's “Deadwood,” is a revelation as the deprecating patriarch. When he brandishes his cane like a weapon and calls Lenny a bitch, it carries the weight of a lifetime of vitriol. “Stop calling me Dad,” he snarls.
More than once, disturbing, unresolved references are made about boyhood atrocities. “The fun we used to have in the bath, eh boys?,” leers Max. No one, however, with the exception of Teddy, is willing to “let bygones be bygones.”
As Lenny, Esparza – the openly gay powerhouse who some say was cheated out of a Best Actor Tony Award for “Company” in 2007 – is a twitching time bomb who seems just one insult away from a nervous breakdown. His mutton-chop sideburns underscore his smarmy brutality.
The sultry Eve Best (“A Moon for the Misbegotten”), while mesmerizing, occasionally overplays the languorous slut routine. A less mannered, more urgently grounded performance might elicit more sympathy.
Reflecting the family's state of decay, Eugene Lee has constructed a patently ugly set of a dilapidated living room with junky furniture. A main wall was apparently bashed down many years earlier in a crude, abandoned attempt to “open things up.” The dingy, exposed drywall with its jagged, gaping hole foretells that nothing good can come of this reunion.
In an era where music videos regularly glorify men treating willing women as sex objects, and where young girls gone wild dress like Paris Hilton and freely post images of drunken debauchery (and the occasional gangbang) on the Internet, that whore-in-control/men-as-pigs theory is not so absurd as it was in 1965.
Yet there are other possible messages to be gleaned in this fraught, ferocious “Homecoming.” My favorite, as Joey says near the evening's climax, echoes the playwright's own refusal to fill his plays with clear-cut explication: “Sometimes you can be happy without going the whole hog.