Maui in 2010 is not North London in 1965. It's sunny here, blue and pacific. It's a place more people run to than from. And while we may get island fever every now and again, we seldom feel like rats in a cage - or under a microscope - or in a maze. Because, or in spite of these facts of island life, when I heard Maui OnStage was offering up a production of Nobel Prize-winning playwright Harold Pinter's "The Homecoming" - one of the darkest, most claustrophobic "drawing room" comedies ever written, I couldn't wait to see it.
The plot seems simple enough: Teddy (played by Robert Henningsen), a philosophy professor in the U.S., returns home to London for the first time in years to introduce his wife, Ruth (Sharleen Lagattuta), to his semi-estranged, male-only family. Teddy's mother, Jesse, died long ago, leaving her husband, Max (Mark Collmer), to lord over a shabby kingdom comprising their other grown sons-the enterprising pimp, Lenny (Joe Spangler), the jocular, dim-witted Joey (Nick Batres), and his browbeaten younger brother, Sam (John Peterson). Ruth grew up in the same working-class neighborhood, but Teddy didn't inform anyone of their hasty nuptials prior to his departure for the states. Until she shows up in their home, they have no idea she even exists.
Pinter's play centers on issues of sexual identity, filial obligation, sibling rivalry and primitivism. Five minutes into the first scene, Collmer and Spangler had, clearly and viscerally, established the father/son alpha-male trip ensconced in an argument over a misplaced pair of scissors. The two actors worked off one another in perfectly Pinteresque fashion - nearly growling, hackles raised, perpetually poised for a final, castrating phrase or bitch slap.
Sharleen Lagattuta makes life complicated for Nick Bates (left) and Mark Collmen in this provocative production directed by Jennifer Rose.
Director Jennifer Rose captured and channeled undercurrents of rage and shame in her seamless, thoughtful blocking. There was palpable energy which both propelled and emanated from each character as they box-stepped through the minefield that masqueraded as a living room.
The play's only sympathetic character, Sam -achingly, authentically rendered by Peterson - takes pride in the fact that the bigwigs he chauffeurs to and from the Savoy ask for him by name, but Max won't allow him even this cold comfort. He belittles his brother at every turn, reminding Sam that he (Max) is the one in charge, the one whose butchering business kept the family going for years. By the time Teddy shows up in the middle of the night, his mystery bride in tow, we're already aware he's dragging her into a pen of battered, neutered wolves, haunted by dim, distorted images of the men they were meant to be.
Sharleen Lagattuta is an icy sphinx of a Ruth. She susses out the odious subtext the minute she crosses the threshold and decides where to plant herself. When the play debuted in 1965, Ruth was called a feminist construct by some. To others, she was misogyny personified. Lagattuta imbues Ruth with power borne out of desperation. By the end of the play, she's rolled around with Joey, made out with Lenny, sent her husband back to the U.S. to tend to their three children and exposed the lot of them for the egomaniacal brutes they are (excepting poor Sam, who finally collapses on the floor, nearly, but not completely, dead). It's pretty clear that Ruth knows exactly what she's doing. If she plays her cards right, she might just eek something resembling life out of the charnel ground she's married into.
At one point, when Sam insists that he did indeed fight in World War II, Max glares at him and, with all the challenging menace a question could possibly hold, asks:
"Who did you kill?"
Collmer gave this one, all-encompassing line the horrific punch it requires. In Pinter's satirical world, where brutality is mistaken for masculinity and pettiness passes for power, we laugh because we can't help ourselves - and often when we don't want to. Pinter's close friend and mentor Samuel Beckett said, "Nothing is funnier than unhappiness, I grant you that. Yes, yes. It's the most comical thing in the world." In "The Homecoming" the crude absurdity of the situation and the characters grant us the distance, and permission, to laugh at what we can not bear to recognize in our own nature.
It's a shame that "The Homecoming" only ran one weekend. Maui owes a debt of gratitude to Rose, her impassioned group of actors and, of course, Maui OnStage for bringing Pinter's masterpiece to the island. I'm hoping for an encore performance ... or perhaps this production will pave the way for more surprising, conversation-eliciting theater in the months and years to come.
* For more information on upcoming Maui OnStage shows at the Historic Iao Theater, call 242-6969 or go online: www.mauionstage.com.