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The Homecoming

Whores Pimps and Kindly Old Men

By Merrick Garland

The Homecoming is dedicated to curing those play-goers who play "What's your interpretation?" after every performance they see. Within its two acts, Harold Pinter has laid a series of booby-traps and land mines designed to destroy the categorizers, rationalizers and explainers in every audience. The Homecoming is Pinter's declaration of war on our tendency to assume that we know what is real and what is unreal, and on our smug assurance that we can analyze why people act as they do.

The play begins conventionally enough. A father, his two grown sons, and his brother inhabit a run-down house in London, and seem to be having their share of family squabbles. Enter: The long-absent eldest son, Teddy, now a Doctor of Philosophy in America, and his wife Ruth, Soon Ruth and the two sons, Lenny and Joey, engage in some suggestive conversation culminating in a sensual dance between Ruth and Joey. Then Lenny, matter-of-factly, proposes that Ruth remain in England as the sexual companion of the family, and that she also earn a little money on the side as one of his whores (his occupation as a pimp now being revealed). Ruth coolly accepts and her husband, Teddy, readily agrees to the setup. As the lights dim, Ruth sits at center stage, fondling Joey, while the old father, Max, crawls at her feet, begging her to "kiss me!"

The play's first act is the teaser, an opportunity for Pinter to play with his audience. Its opening seems typical, and yet, it's not in the "set the scene and characters" mold. Somehow the "characters" never seem to get "set". Is Max a loud-mouthed bastard or a kindly old man? Is Ruth a whore or isn't she? After one puzzlingly suggestive remark by Ruth, Lenny wails--almost as if he spoke for the audience: "Is that a proposition? Damn it, was that a proposition or wasn't it?" We demand that everyone fit in a well-known category: The whore, the kindly old man, the pimp, the vain and stupid boxer (Joey)--and Pinter shoots it all out from under us as soon as we think we know who's who.

As the first act closes, Pinter redoubles his attacks on our expectations. People don't answer when spoken to, or if they do, they respond by talking about a totally different subject. Max begins a sentence with, "your mother was a lovely woman" and ends by denouncing that same lovely woman as a "slut-bitch". And throughout, Pinter maintains a delicate balance of humor and menace. In the midst of a conversation filled with small-talk, Lenny suddenly describes to Ruth his brutal beating of a woman the day before: "Well, she was standing up against this wall, see? No, actually she was sliding down the wall from the blow I had just given her." We demand rational, understandable behavior, but Pinter, as always, leaves his characters' motivations unexplained. The first act works to drive that rationalizing, "logical" approach from our heads, so that we might better appreciate the second.

The second act opens another front of Pinter's war on our intellectual complacency. The question is no longer simply "Why are they acting like that?", but has become even more basic: "Is this real or is this fantasy?" The absurdity of the situation grows stronger with each new turn of events; Lenny coolly makes his proposition, Ruth Coolly accepts it, and Teddy remains absolutely unconcerned. The family even asks Teddy if he wants to act as Ruth's "representative in the States", a kind of international pimp. Max laughs: "Why, Pan Am ought to give us a discount!" And to the absurdity is added the dream-like quality of Ruth's speech and action. The rhythms of the actors' speech become incantations, and feed the suggestion of fantasy and dreams.

And so we play the game again. The habits of our minds force us to once again look for the "explanation" for the events we see. In The Birthday Party, one could explain McCann's and Goldberg's actions as a fiendish underworld plot to get Stanley. Here it's just as simple: Ruth must have been a prostitute when Teddy married her (the suggestion is made several times in the play). Perhaps Teddy has brought her to Europe to work out the unresolvable differences between them, has failed in his efforts, and is now willing to let the family solve his problem. Or perhaps the meaning is more complex. Perhaps the play is a fantasy--the wish-fulfilling Oedipal dream of the sons to depose their father and have sex with their mother (Ruth is the mother-substitute). Or perhaps one should stop trying to categorize the play as reality or fantasy and listen to Pinter himself: "There are no hard distinctions between what is real and what is unreal, nor between what is true and what is false."

The Marlboro Theater Company's production captures the ambivalence of the play, and its lack of motivational explanation. The first act, which can have a tendency to move slowly and become tedious, is handled extremely well, largely because the Company manages to maintain Pinter's mix of terror and humor, so necessary for the initial attack on the "interpreters" in the audience. John Devany, as Max, shifts easily between the ranting, boastful, tough old man and the kindhearted, proud father whom Pinter has created, a difficult task when the character you portray seems to shift his personality for no reason. Hillary Waters' role, that of the enigmatic Ruth--whose motivations are even more hidden than Max's--is perhaps the toughest in the sense of pleasing the audience, just because her apparent lack of motivation is so exasperating. Yet, Miss Waters captures the combination of sensuality and trance-like mystery that is the primary generator of the fantasy suggestion of the play.

Bob McDonald's Lenny, while lacking in the sleekness one expects from the suggestion that he is a big-time pimp, is still quite good. There is one particularly fine interplay between Lenny, Ruth, their dialogue, and a pair of inanimate objects (a glass and an ashtray) which illustrates Pinter's capacity to utilize all the elements of production at his disposal. Lenny suddenly, and inexplicably, becomes insistent upon removing a glass he had given Ruth. "I'll take it," he demands, and she replies: "If you take it...I'll take you." The effect of this first sensual suggestion on Ruth's part is devastating to the audience's expectations.

Only Michael Field, as Teddy, disappoints. His Teddy appears more as the absent-minded professor than the unruffled, pipe-smoking, detached observer Pinter intends. Thus his climactic soliloquy loses some of the force it might have had: "To see, to be able to see. You're just objects, you just move about. I can observe. You're lost in it. I won't be lost in it!" In Field's hands, the soliloquy becomes a childish lament, rather than a strong image of the intellectual detachment that Pinter despises.

The success of The Homecoming, particularly in the small theater of the Boston Center for the Arts, is a joint effort of playwright, actors and audience. The audience's expectations, the mental gymnastics they undergo in searching for a meaning, are taken into account by the author and find their way into the dialogue of the actors. Pinter defies his audience to break out of their habit of categorization, to upset their "intellectual equilibrium". Do we ever know, he asks, the real motivation of the complex people who live in our "real" world? In fact, do we even know what is "real" and what is not? Audience, actor, and author, working together at the Boston Center for the Arts, grapple with just those questions, and produce an evening of fine theater in the process.

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