Volume 79, Number 11 | August 19 - 25, 2009
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933
THEATER: HAROLD PINTER PAIR
Soho Playhouse, 15 Vandam Street (part of FringeNYC; www.FringeNYC.org)
Final performance: Wed, Aug 26, 7:15 p.m.
Directed by Patrick McNulty
Photo by Patrick McNulty
Double Dose of Sex and Darkness
BY ADRIENNE URBANSKI
Depicting modern sexuality as perverse and corrupt might not seem particularly edgy to jaded New Yorkers well versed in the works of Mary Gaitskill and the like.
However, British playwright Harold Pinter penned the two one-acts presented in this dual offering in the early sixties — an era in which audiences must have found these works to be quite shocking.
In this day and age however, the dilemmas of the characters still ring true, and the cleverness of the dialogue and plot are undeniable. Interestingly, the director chose to have the actors perform the works with British accents (despite scripts that carry little colloquial slang, other than a few “blokes” tossed in here and there).
The posh British accents used by the actors adds extra dimension to the piece, causing a clash between their extremely proper manner of speech and the darkness and depravity expressed by the characters. Keeping the characters British also makes the clash between their proper lives and their more perverse sexual desires appropriate, as British society has long in the past shown a swept under the rug attitude towards sexuality — one that Pinter surely experienced during the fifties and sixties.
The first piece, “The Lover,” opens with a wife and husband exchanging a bit of sharply executed repartee concerning the wife’s expected visit from her afternoon lover; whom she sees several afternoons a week, while her husband slags away at his dreary office job. His inquiries towards her extramarital affair are humorously juxtaposed with dull bits of everyday chit chat concerning their household.
The wife points out that he also has his own mistress. I don’t have a mistress, he tells her, “what I have is a common, garden variety slut.” The two make clever jabs and insults towards their extra marital affairs, ones that seem particularly humorous when it is revealed that the wife’s lover is in fact her husband, who visits her from the office, donning a virile demeanor of overt sexuality rather than his everyday docile dapperness. By pretending to be other people, the couple is able to separate their sexuality from their everyday lives, choosing to only unleash their carnal desires while hidden behind carefully orchestrated roles. Once the husband arrives as the lover, the two leap across the room in a constant game of chase. The two play with alternating roles and humorous scenarios, with one being the prey one second and the predator the next.
However, after a quick dalliance under the dining room table, the husband/lover tells the wife that he wants to end their affair. When the wife implores him for an explanation he offers up little more than telling her she has become “too bony,” saying he prefers larger women. Later when he reappears in his role as the jovial husband, he tells the wife that her lover is no longer allowed inside his house and if he appears he will bash his head in. In doing this the husband appears to be attempting to merge their sexual lives with their everyday lives; but will the couple be able to blend these two worlds?
The second piece in the pair, “Ashes to Ashes,” has a far less defined premise than that of “The Lover.” The character’s relationship to one another as well as their realities are never fully explained.
“Ashes to Ashes” is similar to “The Lover” in that it also plays with the idea of the dark and forbidden among an otherwise cheerful and mundane existence. The work opens with the female character Rebecca — telling her partner Devlin of a former sadomasochistic lover that enjoyed choking her and putting his hand over her mouth. While Devlin seems to be Rebecca’s current sexual partner, he also at the same time seems to play the role of psychotherapist, asking Rebecca probing questions and having her retell the tale of her lover over and over again, agonizing over each detail. Once Rebecca has unleashed this dark truth, this one bit of darkness in an otherwise normal and sheltered life (she tells Devlin that nothing bad has ever happened to her, nor to her friends), she begins to look for sadness in the small details of her very normal existence.
She expresses sadness towards the passing of the police siren, stating that once the sound fades it no longer belongs to her, it becomes someone else’s. As she slips further and further into her desire for darkness, she begins telling stories that aren’t hers — giving allusions to holocaust concentration camps. Devlin tries to remind Rebecca of the pleasantness of her life, pointing out her garden and home; but it’s too late and Devlin realizes the only way to appease Rebecca is to provide her with the pain and darkness she seems set on acquiring.
This double dose of Pinter succeeds in the end, not only because of the rich, appealingly dark material, but also due to the skillful performances from the actors. Each of the four players in these pieces shows a gift for both dramatic darkness as well as sharply executed humor, fully lighting up an otherwise minimally set stage.