Pittsburgh Irish and Classical Theatre offers a remarkable experience: six plays by Harold Pinter in what could be called repertory performances. That is, you have chances to marvel at the talents and versatility of a finely-tuned company of 14 actors, 8 of whom are local artists, most appearing in more than one play.
Moreover, this becomes even more remarkable because it offers the opportunity to truly appreciate the depth and breadth of Pinter’s writing and imagination in work spanning more than 40 years. Evidently some people believe that his work is characteristically confounding, negative and oblique i.e not entertaining and too challenging. Certainly five of the plays presented by PICT do not seem simple or straightforward. But collectively you’ll find a stimulating and diverse mixture of comedy, absurdity, passion, menacing situations and much ambiguity, sometimes much of that in even just one performance. Equally significant, you’ll hear extraordinarily expressive language. Certainly you’ll also notice that Pinter finds fun in Monty-Python-like rambling lists of things and names and observe that Pinter favors extended monologues for a number of the characters. All of that remains fascinating, even as you watch and wonder where or how a play will evolve and end.
You can read superb program notes about all this and more, delving into backgrounds, interpretations, and deeper meanings before or after you’ve gone through the irregular permutations which characterize Pinter’s work.
Of the two longest plays No Man’s Land from 1975 shimmers with brilliant language, personified and made magnificent by Canadian actor Rick McMillan as Spooner, self-described as a failed poet. Spooner has become the spontaneous house guest of Hirst, an alcoholic upper-class, previously successful writer. Present as well are two younger, seemingly dangerous bodyguards/servants. The older men reminisce about their falling-apart lives, perhaps even inventing details. McMillan’s performance remains compelling and brilliant throughout bringing out all the man’s comic loquaciousness, his pathos and his vulnerability. Sam Tsoutsouvas plays Hirst with dynamic passion.
The other long play is The Hothouse from 1958 which could be described as a blackly comic indictment of institutional bureaucracy. It is set in a place called a “rest home” or a "sanitorium” when, at Christmastime, a child is unexpectedly born and a mysterious death is revealed,both disturbing the disordered order of running the place. You’ll find more of an obvious story than in No Man’s Land with many pointed twists and turns. Larry John Myers stands out in the seven member cast playing Roote, the institution’s director. He expertly gets across the man’s contrasting, complex blend of funny befuddlement and nasty self-absorption. However I found it difficult to hear and understand some of what was said, sitting very far on house left, given both the accuracy of the English accents and the blocking which favored house front. If you have a chance, try to sit closer to the center.
The four shorter plays are presented as two pairs, The Dumb Waiter from 1959 with Betrayal from 1978, The Room from 1957 with Celebration written 43 years later. Of these certainly The Dumb Waiter and Betrayal are best known, having been also become films. In The Dumb Waiter two hit men wait for their intended victim in a dreary basement. In the Pittsburgh and Irish Classical Theatre production, directed by Martin Giles, the emphasis remains on absurd comedy which Michael Hanrahan and Jarrod DiGiorgi play with great timing.
Betrayal tells a rather straightforward story, although it moves back in time. It concerns a long-term adulterous relationship between Jerry and Emma. She’s married to Jerry’s best friend Robert who knows and does nothing about the affair. The play starts by being very funny about the awkwardness of two former lovers trying to be sociable. But it grows in clear-cut intensity. Each of the actors gives significant definition to the characters in this uneven triangle. David Whalen’s version of Jerry portrays perfect confused innocence. As Emma, Nike Doukas impressively personifies the woman’s passionate nature. And Leo Marks superbly conveys Robert’s smug, self-satisfaction in his own ability to control his emotions.
The Room seems most like the work of Samuel Beckett, to which Pinter’s is often compared. On the surface it remains quite a puzzle, starting by seeming realistic but then taking darker and darker turns. Bernadette Quigley creates a remarkably well-defined portrait in a pivotal role. If you’re engaged enough to want to decipher symbolic meanings, program notes will do that for you.
You couldn’t get a bigger contrast than to witness the companion play Celebration, a clearly understandable, laugh-filled send up of manners and pretentions. It’s set in a restaurant where two couples celebrate an anniversary and a third couple gets drawn into their raucous behavior while the staff goes off into its own goofy tangents about the past. Tami Dixon’s portrayal of a dippy blonde nails the whole thing to its sturdy floor
Even though these six plays are staged by five different directors, collectively they perfectly unite in getting their casts to make the characters seem human and genuine even if funny, complex, disturbing and threatening.
Pinter wrote 21 other plays than these. Don’t be surprised if Pittsburgh Irish and Classical Theatre has stimulated your appetite to discover more of the Pinter’s astounding and varied artistry. A second such festival would be equally worth a visit.
All of the plays are presented in the coming week at the two theaters of the Stephen Foster Memorial in Oakland. Tickets and info at 412.394.3353 or www.proartstickets.org. www.picttheatre.org