One thing made clear in the St. Louis Actors' Studio's virile production of Harold Pinter's The Homecoming is this: Nearly half a century after its London premiere, the Nobel laureate's potent masterpiece of family tumult remains as vital, vicious and inscrutable as ever.
The rest, however, is up for grabs.
This play...Oh! This play, performed in two riveting acts, has been confounding critics and audiences alike since it opened to mixed reviews in 1965. In the past 50 years, however, The Homecoming has become recognized as perhaps the most powerful, the most essentially Pinteresque, of the playwright's early period.
And with good reason.
In form, The Homecoming offers a familiar domestic tableau — a kitchen sink drama where members of an all-male working class North London household vie, in matters both large and small, for dominance. It's recognizable enough terrain, with Max, the pugnacious paterfamilias, marshaling his waning virility to lord over his two adult sons, Lenny, a small-time pimp, and Joey, an aspiring boxer who works by day in "demolition."
Not that they're terribly bothered by their truculent pop's outbursts. Lenny, played with a seething, just-below-the-surface aggression by a very good Charlie Barron, answers his dad's opening query ("What have you done with the scissors?") with a blistering question of his own: "Why don't you shut up, you daft prat?" Meanwhile, Joey, a slump-shouldered and slack-jawed Nathan Bush, is simply too dumb to realize the rancor that surrounds him. The only member of this warring clan that seems troubled at all is Max's sibling, Sam, a marvelously meek and careful Larry Dell, who steels himself against his brother's malice by daydreaming of proper British society, a world he has brief purchase to as a cab driver.
But Pinter, being Pinter, gives us no psychological backstory to these characters. We know, for instance, that this household has been bereft of women since Max's wife, Jessie, died. But who was she? At one moment, Max, who Peter Mayer inhabits with a raging, sinuous impotency, describes his wife by turns as a "slutbitch" with a "rotten stinking face," only later to praise her as the family's "backbone," a woman with a "heart of gold" who taught the boys "the moral code they live by."
Where is the truth? Pinter offers no easy explanations. He provides no emotional thread we can trace back to a psychological source, and he certainly offers no moral. Rather, this brutal tribe simply exists, and Pinter's muscular language, which the cast here wields like so many cudgels, masterfully obscures the real and the imagined. This epistemological opacity is only clouded further with the arrival Teddy, Max's eldest son, who has returned home from America to introduce his wife of six years, Ruth.
Played by a reserved Ben Ritchie, Teddy initially appears to have escaped the gravitational pull of this ruthless world. Not only is he a professor of philosophy, but he also has three boys of his own. "We've got everything we want," he tells Max, a former butcher. "It's a very stimulating environment."
But as the play's dimensions begin to shift, we come to realize all the more forcefully that the truth is a slippery, inexpressible thing. It belongs to whoever happens to be speaking. ("How did you know she was diseased?" Ruth asks Lenny after he recounts a story of punching a woman he believed had the pox when she tried to seduce him. "How did I know?" Lenny replies. "I decided she was.")
It's Pinter's singular gift to have the domestic tensions that animate this toxic household work on two separate levels. First, there are those quotidian things common to any family (who ate my cheese roll?!). But in Pinter's hands, these squabbles can at any moment crack open a baffling existential abyss, as when Max, Lenny, and Joey decide to keep Ruth as their shared concubine, reasoning that she could pull her weight by working a few hours each day in the city's red light district.
You see, Ruth, a sultry and sphinx-like Missy Heinemann, is having a homecoming of her own. She was born nearby. She was "different" before she married Teddy (a statement he denies), and she's not necessarily opposed to the butcher's proposed arrangement. As the play unfolds, reason and coherence are swept aside as Lenny and Ruth kiss in front of Teddy. Joey has her in a bedroom for two hours (but doesn't go "the whole hog") and later embraces her on the couch as Max praises her motherly virtues. Through it all, Teddy, bewilderingly, puts up about as much of a fight as he does when Lenny challenges him with a philosophical question — which is to say he puts up no fight at all.
In the end, the language here, burly and brutish, doesn't so much convey meaning as it does establish the baldness of the speakers' very existence. In many ways, the pauses that inhabit The Homecoming are as powerful as the words that are spoken, and it's quite a sight to behold as six separate wills collide — verbally and sub-verbally — on Patrick Huber's cramped and effective set. But these pauses, rich as they are, could have been explored more thoroughly in this current production, and under Milton Zoth's otherwise superb direction, the actors seem at times to speed through their lines, occasionally preventing them from dropping with all the discomfiting power they possess.
It is in many ways an impenetrable play. Still, by final curtain, Ruth, who repeats history by sending Teddy packing to his three boys back home, emerges as the most powerful figure in this violent world of men. Fittingly, her pause-laden lines perhaps give us the firmest foothold to approach this topsy-turvy world: "Look at me," she says, spreading her legs to the rapture of the men. "My lips move. Why don't you restrict . . . your observations to that? Perhaps the fact that they move is more significant . . . than the words which come through them. You must bear that . . . possibility . . . in mind."