Review: What Lies Beneath… Defunkt Theatre’s “The Homecoming” at Back Door Stage 1

Poster Art for Defunkt Theatre's Production of Harold Pinter's “The Homecoming.”A theatre director who had done productions both here in the U.S. and Europe, had a favorite adage he loved to relate through a smirk: “Beginning actors think that doing Shakespeare means acting with a fake British accent; and, if they’re doing Brecht, they think that means you scream your lines a lot.”

I remember well his lessons on traps that people fall into when attempting theatrical stylism with all the woefully mistaken expectations we tend to overlay on certain genres. To his warning, I would add: some productions think doing the works of lauded 1960s-70s British Playwright Harold Pinter means staring at fellow actors meaningfully between lines and holding a lot of pregnant pauses.

Director Paul Angelo of Defunkt Theatre holds a certain amount of reverence for Pinter, which is correct for a Nobel Laureate and creator of a theatre style all his own; as he says in his programs notes: “My instinct [here] is to write nothing – a metaphorical silence if you will.” Apropos and well played, for the playwright who was said to be the poet of silences. However, when Angelo in his production notes goes on to say, “…Harold Pinter has no peer and The Homecoming is possibly the greatest play ever penned by a human,” my hyperbole meter was red-lining in the extreme. That sort of unabashed adulation probably would have been eschewed by Pinter himself, considering the number of powerhouse 20th century playwrights who were his friends and contemporaries alone, as those grouped with him in the Theatre of the Absurd: Albee, Beckett, and Ionesco; as well as, the playwright who took from his style and made it distinctly American – Mamet. Pinter’s work is a modern classic, to be sure, but it is usually dangerous territory when a director or theatre company put too much idolization to the object they wish to honor. It leaves no room to play, to breathe, or for both the players and audience to develop a relationship to the piece that is their own.

In this production of Pinter’s The Homecoming at Defunkt Theatre’s Backdoor Stage, the opening setting is well done and appropriate — a decaying old house in North London’s in the mid-60s, that area and London’s East End were known well by Pinter, having grown up there, and knowing well its questionable gangster types. The good news about this production is Pinter’s brilliance in the material stands forth no matter what – these words, even if read as if they were Ikea furniture assembly directions, still carry weight and power. What becomes problematic is Angelo’s work with his cast to convey a Pinteresque style, which can come off as too heavy handed, and labored, save for a couple of the performers who successfully make it their own.

We are introduced to the family inhabiting this house, but it is far from a conventional family. The Patriarch, Max, played with appropriate aging, grizzled roughness by Blaine Palmer; his sons, Lenny (Matthew Kern), a bit of a more modern teddy-boy and mod, fancying himself the new head of the family’s underworld dealings; Joey (David Bellis-Squires), a young tough who does demolition work and is a would-be boxing contender; and Max’s remaining quieter brother, the chauffer Sam (William Wilson). Like most Pinter, it’s what’s missing here yet enormously felt that is most important: two other characters spoken about, though long since passed, Max’s wife Jessie, who may have been turned out as a prostitute and carted around by Sam, and Max’s admired friend, the allegedly toughest of them all, MacGregor or “Mac.” Jessie and Mac’s ghosts haunt what’s left of Max and his family through the words and stories of them and the glory days constantly recounted by the present characters. They become the standard holding all of them down, Mac as the manly symbol none of them could ever live up to, and their mother, Jessie, the fundamental Madonna-Whore. Indeed, Pinter points up the most obvious, gaping hole left behind in this dysfunctional unit is what Jessie represents — a woman’s touch, guidance, softness. Left without it, they are like growling and whimpering feral dogs snapping at each other’s heels, where every interaction is a power play, their brutalism raw under every word and silence made to each other.

Here, the material in the production succeeds where we feel the cold menace under each bit of dialogue, or in the angry silences that follow. The Brits succeed in lending a light and very conversational off-handedness to this type of dialogue, making underlying meanings and what is conveyed in silence all the more meaningful when it happens. The problem in this production comes when these American actors continuously lean too hard into their attempt at the style — there is a thin line between Pinter’s poetry of silence and becoming a stilted, talking-head soap opera of furtive looks and pauses you could drive a convoy of semi’s through. Unfortunately, with a couple exceptions, after the first twenty minutes or so into this production, it was more of the latter than the former. Palmer’s Max and Kern’s Lenny are initially engaging in playing this way off each other, letting brutal speech and heated silences fall the way only a long brewing hatred between father and son and the power plays between them can. But when more players are added, and the style is over-used in each scene, it becomes more like a cumbersome museum-piece of the genre and not a living, breathing piece unto its own. The local, American western regionalisms creeping through the attempts at lower-class North London English accents, in most cases, didn’t help much either. This voices in this company seems to have landed somewhere in the Atlantic Ocean around the Azores.

Into this brutish stew comes the surprise homecoming — Max’s prodigal son Teddy (Zachary Rouse), the one seemingly educated and reasonable one in the bunch, and his alluring wife Ruth (Grace Carter). They have been in the U.S., ostensibly where Teddy is a college professor at a mid-western university, and are on a quick visit home after a trip to Italy. Or are they? On entrance, Ruth’s face betrays that she knows just what kind of house and family this really has been and it seems a situation all too familiar and comfortable for her. Teddy’s, “This is my family! They’re not monsters!,” reassurance to her rings ironically hollow and bitterly laughable, based on what we know and what Ruth senses from the start. Has Teddy really just brought her home for a quick visit, or is she to be the “re-payment” for a debt he owes his underworld family that caused his flight? And is Ruth aghast at this prospect, or is it a situation she is not only used to, as was the mother Jessie, but in fact shines and relishes in the role?

Here, Carter’s Ruth (originally played by Pinter’s first wife, Vivien Merchant) shines as one of the performers more apt with the style, and not just because her English accent has the least flaws. Her short or non-answers to Teddy’s stuffy and often annoying chatter convey volumes. In her initial meeting with brother Lenny, he relates almost immediately two events in which he brutalized women, the unspoken power play is to put Ruth in her place. Carter’s non-plussed silence in return conveys not fear, but true power: is that the best you got, son? Indeed, Carter as Ruth expertly allows this ultimate British nuanced attitude to allow her character the upper hand in all her interactions with this family — where some would sink and feel victimized, she knows the score, sees what they’re missing and steps into her place of ultimate control, on her own terms, albeit a twisted role it is. Through alternating smoldering sensuality or being simply and quietly unmoved by their pitiful power plays, she takes full command. The presence of her implied sexuality alone appropriately reduces Bellis-Squire’s Joey from rage-filled pit bull to obsessed, fawning puppy. The rest of the company could take notes on her performance. Also, Rouse’s Teddy and Wilson’s Sam have some very good moments: Teddy for his reliance on intellectual distancing and gab, thinking that is his salvation from his family’s fate, and Sam for his careful guarding of family secrets. In a moment where Sam is savagely insulted and shown up by Max before everyone, his long, quiet, defeated yet noble exit says more than any other actor in the company.

In the end, will Ruth step into the void left by the mother Jessie, lending, more than sex, the woman’s hand these bestial men long for, even beg for? That the mystery in Pinter’s material still holds up, forty-plus years hence, says a lot, and a good reason to go see any performance of it. This production, however, could do well in taking it off the awkward pedestal of antiquity and, taking a cue from Carter, breathe more rough, immediate vibrancy into it.

Defunkt Theatre presents The Homecoming by Harold Pinter, Directed by Paul Angelo. Featuring Blaine Palmer, Matthew Kern, William Wilson, David Bellis-Squires, Zachary Rouse and Grace Carter. Dialect Coaching by Luisa Sermol. Set Design by Bill Tripp, Master Carpentry by Collin Lawson, Lighting Design by Emily Stadulis, Sound Design by Corbin Wescott, Costume Design by Lori Sue Hoffman, Assistant Costume Design by Alana Wight, Stage Manager, Light & Sound Board by Erin Giblin. Plays October 12th through November 17th, Thursdays through Sundays at 8 p.m at the Back Door Theatre at Common Grounds Coffeehouse, ;4321 ;SE ;Hawthorne Blvd., Portland, OR, 97215. Tickets are $15 – $20, plus by donation, pay-what-you-will on Thursday Performances, available through the Box Office Tickets Web Site, or call Lori Sue Hoffman of Defunkt Theatre at (503) 481-2960.