A word's worth

Some terrific acting blooms in Pinter's The Hothouse

In critical circles, Harold Pinter has the reputation of being "an actor's playwright," mostly because he acted for a number of years in 1950s London under the pseudonym David Baron. His scripts go so far as to instruct the actors where and how long they should pause between dialogue.

A friend who graduated with a performance degree insists, however, that Pinter is a troublemaker, because his nearly nonexistent plots, verbal repetitions, and slippery themes can cause frustration in rehearsals. The relationship between directors and actors is already precarious, and Pinter's obtuseness sometimes skews the balance even further. It's difficult to know how the curmudgeonly old Brit wants you to react to his work--you can't easily pigeonhole many of his '60s works as either comedies or dramas. He sometimes pits one artist against another in the struggle to find the right tone. In other words, there are wildly divergent theories, some of them equally valid, on how to play Pinter.

If critics and theater artists disagree on interpreting the playwright, it's easy to assume that the unwashed masses had better hang it up and join the waiting list for tickets to Les Miserables or some such mega-bucks touring spectacle. Most of us chafe at having to concentrate on our entertainment nowadays, so to have the playwright keep his motives so bleakly vague amounts to arrogance at best, sadism at worst. In our proudest moments of skepticism, Americans are equipped with a bullshit detector that helps us avoid being the butt of some intellectual practical joke. If we don't understand a story after reasonable reflection, then maybe there's nothing to understand. And sometimes, we're right. But in our worst anti-elitist moments, when we wield a Jesse Helms-ish provincialism that's as uppity as the worst artistic pretense, we foreclose on the playwright's vision and shortchange ourselves on an unconventional insight into human behavior.

Having now seen one live Pinter production, studied three of his plays in college, and watched TV adaptations by Robert Altman and a British movie version by David Jones, my credentials as an armchair Pinter scholar are unassailable. And I must tell you that the rumors of the playwright's impenetrability are exaggerated. Generally speaking, just as with Samuel Beckett, people lose the point because they're looking too hard. Beckett's Waiting For Godot made its London debut smack dab in the middle of Pinter's early acting career, and you can see traces of the Nobel Prize winner's non sequitur comedy and slapstick violence in Pinter's early work, before he went on to forge sympathetic themes with unconventional narrative structures in plays like Betrayal--his unforgettable, inverted study of infidelity and its scars. Viewers of both playwrights try to integrate the seeming tangents in a literal way, looking for the common thread that connects them. In searching for clues, they stop paying attention to what these characters are saying--and, just as important to a Pinter play, what they aren't saying--to each other.

Once you understand that miscommunication is the engine that drives a Pinter vehicle, that his characters are perpetually reciting their own personal agendas disguised as conversation, then you can see a--gulp--moral vision behind these words. When you have your head stuck up your ass, Pinter seems to be saying, you're only going to see yourself everywhere you look. This not only hobbles the human spirit, but slowly, gangrenously kills it.

The good news is that director Lisa Cotie and her cast have chosen a consistent approach to 11th Street Theater Project's production of The Hothouse, which is comic, eerie,and suitably acid-tinged. There are no ponderous silences, no overenunciation of second readings of the same line to emphasize their significance. As often as the audience laughed during the opening night's brisk performance, many of us were nonetheless shifting in our seats by the middle of the second act. I suspect that this was less 11th Street's fault than the playwright's--The Hothouse was only his second full-length play, and wasn't staged until more than 20 years after it was written. Pinter details the bureaucratic bungling, hidden maneuvering, and conflicted passions among the administrators and service providers of a British mental institution on Christmas day. He sets everyone spinning like a top, then tries too hard to contain their vectors.

The bespectacled Roote (James Kille) is the Mr. Carlton of this establishment, a dizzy chief whose inability to remember details about employees and inmates leads him to periodic fits of abusive language toward the caustic but servile Gibbs (Jeff Bush), his personal assistant. Vacillating between them is the coldly opportunistic, vain Cutts (Linda Coleman), whose romantic and professional interests become difficult to disentangle under such an aloof exterior. Floating on the periphery are Lamb (Kevin Grammer), a cheerful security guy whose habit of sending suggestions to upper management causes him unsavory consequences, and Lush (Kevin Keating), whose own unctuous strategizing leads him to a near-fatal showdown for the boss' attention.

All these loose ends dangle above us teasingly and intriguingly like a baby's mobile, activated by the slick comic timing of the actors. But we know something terrible is brewing, because as the room temperature begins to climb and the characters' behavior becomes more unscrupulous, the cries of the institutionalized insane, ecstatically happy, and unspeakably despairing, rise in frequency and intensity.

The Hothouse builds a provocative first act that it resolves with unsatisfying, slightly clumsy haste. To ask for resolution at all in a Pinter play is a tall order; the last scene suggests he was operating from a tender sense of what a play should be, not what he should make it. The playwright's own discomfort with denouement is evidenced in the makeshift lid he slaps on these sinister shenanigans.

Still, my memory of three terrific performances outlasts the lingering sensation of a sore butt. As the aggressively forgetful Roote, James Kille provides a reliably daft presence around which the other actors may orbit. As the ambitious and especially callous Lush, Kevin Keating reassures us that his character has risen far on the strength of a cruel apathy; his niggling over the terms "rest" and "convalescence" with a patient's relative are delivered with a smashing blend of officiousness and glee.

For me, the flame that kept The Hothouse hauntingly claustrophobic was Kevin Grammer as the appropriately named Lamb. Sucked into an investigation about a pregnant inmate mostly because of his naive desire to ascend the bureaucratic ladder, Grammer as Lamb undergoes a twisted and twistedly funny interrogation, hooked up to a rather nasty-looking machine that punishes him for his honesty. Thanks to the tragically sincere, enthusiastic Grammer, the scene transforms the souped-up essence of Pinter's misanthropy into a perverse moral lesson: Avoid the truth. It hurts.

The Hothouse runs through August 23. Call 522-

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