Harold Pinter was an Englishman who wrote powerful, controversial plays….so successfully that he was honored with a Nobel Laureate for Literature in 2005. I had the honor of meeting the dapper, delightful playwright in 1967 when I was production head of an ABC film company, Palomar, and we made a movie in England of his early play, “The Birthday Party.” Although the play had only run one week when it opened in London in 1958, it later was seen by 11 million people when it was telecast in 1960. Our small feature was notable mainly for the fact that I had hired a young untested Chicago television director, Billy Friedkin (his only previous feature credit was a Sonny & Cher movie, Good Times) to direct. He did a commendable job and you may recall that he went on to direct celebrated films like “The French Connection” and “The Exorcist.” Currently married to film exec Sherry Lansing, Billy got into a contretemp last year when he was directing a production of “The Birthday Party” at Westwood’s Geffen Playhouse and had a run-in with a British actor playing the lead. The actor walked (back to London), the show was cancelled a week before it was scheduled to open.
When I heard that the excellent Pacific Resident Theatre Company (703 Venice Blvd, four blocks west of Lincoln, with a parking lot at the rear of the theatre, (310-822-8392) was putting on a production at their Venice theatre of Pinter’s ‘THE HOMECOMING,” I made arrangements to attend an early performance with a friend in the company. You may recall that I favorably reviewed their performance last year of the critically-acclaimed Henry V, directed by Guillermo Cienfuegos, who was also directing this version of The Homecoming. I had first seen the Pinter play when it opened in New York in 1967 and, directed by Sir Peter Hall, it won the Tony Award as best play for that year. The female lead, Ruth, in that production was played by Pinter’s first wife, actress Vivien Merchant, also nominated for a Tony. (He later divorced her and, in a juicy scandal, married novelist Lady Antonia Fraser. It was a very successful, compatible marriage.)
I have seen several productions of it and think that it is probably Pinter’s best play. It’s been more than a decade since this Tony-award winning play has been seen here in Los Angeles, more’s the pity. It’s a powerful, weird and wonderful drama….typical Pinteresque twists-and-turns. Incidentally, as I entered the theatre on Friday night, I was greeted by the great character actor, Orson Bean, and companion Alley Mills, who both told me of their pleasure in reading these Huffington posts almost every day. “I played Lennie in this play over 30 years ago,” ‘O’ added. After the show, we caucused on the Venice Blvd, sidewalk and agreed that it was one of the better renderings of Pinter’s work any of us had ever seen. Superbly cast and brilliantly performed.
I don’t want to ‘spoil’ the story for readers, but I can tell you that it is set in North London, in a rambling old house there. All of the action takes place in the living room, and we meet the six characters comprising the cast. The patriarch of the family, Max ((Jude Ciccolella) , is a retired butcher whose wife died a few years before. (In a BBC radio production of the play done in 2007, Pinter played Max. He also played Lennie on stage in the 60’s.) Max’s brother, Sam (Anthony Fours) , early sixties, is a chauffeur, never married and the only sympathetic character. Max’s three sons are here: Lenny (Jason Downs) is a slimy one. Joey (Steve Spiro) is a dim-witted would-be boxer who works in “demolition,” and then there is Teddy (Trent Dawson), an expat philosophy professor who returns from six years in America with his British wife, Ruth (Leslie Fera). Ruth is, for me, the fulcrum character of the play, an attractive sexually-appealing mature woman who has a London background only later revealed. The brilllian actress Marwa Bernstein is alternating with Leslie on weekends in late June and July. Elspeth Weingarten produced the show and the indefatigable Marilyn Fox is Artistic Dirctor. It is a revelation to see such masterful acting performances in a small regional theatre!
This play is the epitome of Pinter’s syle: ambiguous, minimalistic, startling, often funny …a family romance and a turf war. The concept of family love is turned on its head here before the end. A reviewer once described it as a ‘moral vacuum.’ Yes, indeed. But fascinating, so I strongly recommend a trip down Venice Blvd. to that house in North London.
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