The Harvard Dramatic Club's Evening With Pinter and Beckett is a fine survey of the tamer modern entertainments. It begins with Harold Pinter's The Collection, one of the quieter works of a very noisy playwright, and after an hour or so moves to a mime by Samuel Beckett (titled, with cheery deadpan, Act Without Words I). Illuminations, a festival of electronic echoes and throbbing lights reminiscent of the best parts of The Ipcress File, brings down the curtain.
Leland Moss directs an unfortunately wishy-washy version of The Collection. So long as he keeps the air free of dramatic pauses the dialogue has the porcelain sparkle that is Pinter's cache. But from time to time the actors forget they are in a Pinter play and try to make us understand what they are feeling. When that happens torpor floods the stage and it seems that the puzzling plot and symbolism just aren't worth the trouble.
Pinter's characters are, to a man, stick figures. They are threadbare solipsists, suspended over an abyss. They know, and we learn, that if any one of them makes too loud a sound all will tumble in. Each speaks a private language, packed with private symbols as inscrutable to the other characters as to us. It is a measure of their cardboard substance that we are not surprised if any one of them gives a silly giggle and drops to the stage, dead as cold toast.
The power and the humor in all of Pinter's plays come from the presentation of this isolation and fear. The audience is free to conjecture relations homosexual or relations heterosexual, to pick out a symbol here or observe some principle of psychology. But the characters, Pinter tells us, live as do figures in our world: within themselves, fearing the open door through which can pass the undefined menace, never laughing. How can they laugh? Listening only to themselves, they always miss the punch line, or don't realize when they've spoken it.
To play that kind of character an actor must forget each line after he speaks it. He must forget how he has been hurt and not imagine how he will be hurt. He is obliged to have a stage presence without having a firm stage personality.
James Shuman, who plays Bill, a slum-bred dress designer, does the most emoting and hence the least satisfactory job of acting. With gestures, with whines, with studied intonation he works to paint a figure only outlined by the playwright. Moreover, his English accent often holds up only at the beginnings and ends of sentences, leaving him to conduct the middles in harsh American.
Arthur Friedman as Harry, the "wow" at parties, and Tom Jones as the wronged husband James are quick, polished, and properly above the sense and nonsense of what they are saying. At the very end of the play, however, Jones sinks into a too perceptive, responsive state. Both have passable accents; neither appears to strain to preserve it. I don't think Arthur Friedman looks like the forty-year-old man called for in the strip. This distorts his relation to Bill, a man in his twenties who rose from the lower classes by Harry's grace. The last member of the company, Sheila Hart, does an adequate job with the relatively small part of Stella, the maybe-sinner.
I have one technical quibble. For some reason Bruce West, who does a good job with the set (a complicated system of rooms, steps and a phone booth), insists on switching a spotlight through various colors at strategic moments. Perhaps some electronic gimcrack was broken or perhaps one was being tested. No matter. It is unduly distracting.
Act without Words I and Illuminations are curious productions. The first an accelerated and expurgated history of humankind. Paul Schmidt is The Man and for perhaps fifteen vaguely humorous minutes he clutches at the summum bonum. Then he declines, as do we all to a blasted heap of insensibility. It is worth the fifteen minutes, I think, just to see Paul Schmidt portray a blasted heap.
Schmidt is also the grand architect of Illuminations. He presents his work on three screens and through an obscenely powerful amplifier system. I could not make sense out of all I saw and heard during Illuminations, but from those quite lyric snatches I did find coherent I would guess there is a good deal of sense to be made. Fortunately, the mitotic circle of white light and the ponderous voices puree the mind so quickly that it is only after the house lights come on that you realize that you have not understood.
Pinter and Beckett, the poster says, Pinter and Beckett it is. Not the best of their plays, not the best of productions, but good enough on both counts to make the evening worthwhile.