The Homecoming

Famous Door Theatre Company

at the Theatre Building

By Adam Langer

There always seemed to be a current of dark humor coursing through the work of Harold Pinter–until about 15 years ago, that is, when he turned his attention to more overtly political parables, brief but horrifying tracts that could fit on a scant few pages. His 1988 12-page police-state drama Mountain Language is a prime example of a Pinter play dominated by horror, however absurd. But in 1965, when The Homecoming premiered in London, Pinter’s work still had a gleeful menace, derived largely from the banal way in which he presented evil: mordantly amoral, the play is reminiscent of Richard III exulting over wooing the widow of the man he’s just murdered. Funny in the grotesque way that Kafka is funny, The Homecoming features characters who make the absolute worst of a bad situation.

Performed well, the play is a jarring experience–like watching Noel Coward overdubbed by some vicious prankster. Indeed it seems a devilishly dark and complex variation on the Monty Python-esque skits Pinter turned out in the late 50s. But taken too literally, it runs the risk of seeming an out-and-out horror show, portraying humankind at its most depraved and animalistic.

In December The Homecoming was appearing on more than a few of those lists of the 20th century’s greatest plays. And it does have all the hallmarks of Pinter’s best work–a sense of dread in words not spoken, profound irony, layer upon layer of ambiguity, a caustic wit. But it’s not his subtlest piece, with a bilious tone that recalls Pinter’s contemporaries Joe Orton and Edward Albee as much as it does such understated Pinter masterpieces as Betrayal, The Collection, and Old Times. Like Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? this piece deals with the family unit and with academics and their wives. It also plays like an archetypal nightmare–the story of the prodigal son gone horribly awry.

Teddy, a young professor of philosophy at an American university, returns to England after a six-year absence to introduce his wife, Ruth, to his family. And what a family it is–a collection of ghouls no more civil than Maurice Sendak’s caricatures of his relatives in Where the Wild Things Are. (It’s no surprise that in the play’s 1967 Chicago premiere at the Studebaker Theatre, currently the Fine Arts movie theater, the touring company was led by Carolyn Jones–best known as Morticia on The Addams Family TV show.)

Introducing one’s significant other to the folks is always fraught with tension. But in Pinter’s twisted vision, horrifying scenarios that one never would have considered come true. Teddy’s father, Max, is a feisty widower and retired butcher, a frothing, foulmouthed cuss apt to curse his sons with epithets that border on the Shakespearean. Max’s brother, Sam, is a mild-mannered, emasculated chauffeur who masks his contempt for Max behind a polite veneer. One of Teddy’s brothers, Lenny, is a pimp who spins tales of his supposed violent sexual conquests, and the youngest brother, Joey, is a dim-witted talentless boxer. The family’s operative mode of communication is verbal abuse.

“They’re my family,” Teddy tells Ruth. “They’re not ogres.”

But this is wishful thinking.

Ruth’s arrival brings out the atavistic nature of Teddy’s family. Completely aware of the sexual power she wields over these motherless, childlike men, she twists Lenny’s and Max’s plan to turn her into the family whore to her own advantage. At the end of the play, after Teddy is gone and there’s been much discussion of how and where Ruth will be pimped, Max and Joey are reduced to feeble, blubbering pups looking to her for comfort and approval. As the lights go down, she’s sitting in Max’s chair, the family’s seat of power.

Much of the play’s humor comes from the way Ruth is able to deflate the male characters’ macho bluster with a simple word or gesture. One scene begins with the men lighting all-too-phallic cigars, but they fizzle out as quickly as the men’s sexuality. After Lenny boasts at length about beating a woman, probably a prostitute who’d attempted to seduce him, Ruth reveals him for the impotent coward he is in a disarming sentence or two. And when muscular Joey, who’s apparently too dumb to remember the details of a rape Lenny says the two of them committed, takes Ruth upstairs, he’s unable to perform sexually, treating her more like a stern mother than a lover. It’s even suggested late in the play that the bragging Max, who frequently proclaims his late wife’s goodness, was a cuckold and that his three children might be bastards. The revelation that Teddy–a distanced, priggish academic–has fathered three children likewise suggests a combination of fantasy and cuckoldry.

The play has been interpreted as both a refutation of the Oedipus myth and an exemplification of it: Teddy returns home to sexually conquer his mother and render his father impotent. It’s even been viewed as a vicious attack by Pinter on his Jewish background, as he lampoons the Semitic view of a reviled shiksa entering the midst of the family. It is not a play that becomes clearer on repeated viewings; a Rorschach test of a drama, it has its own surreal logic: it’s compelling for its fascinating but often hateful characters, its ferocious dialogue, and its chilling comedy.

Famous Door’s revival, directed by Gary Griffin, is the fourth production of The Homecoming I’ve seen; the others are the 1973 Peter Hall film starring Ian Holm and Vivien Merchant; a riveting Steppenwolf revival about ten years ago featuring Alan Wilder, Tom Irwin, and Jim True at his manic best; and a dreadfully flat-footed Berlin production in English about a year and a half ago, performed by a company with the preposterous name of Friends of Italian Opera, in homage to the mobsters’ congregation in Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot.

Famous Door’s production is the most frightening of the bunch–and the least humorous. On Robert Smith’s austere set, with its worn, faded furniture and dimly glowing light fixtures, Pinter’s play proceeds with the grim inevitability of an accident in slow motion. There’s precious little levity in any of the actors’ portrayals. With his full, Richard Burton-esque timbre, Roderick Peeples plays Max as a combination of Willy Loman and a King Lear with thankless sons instead of daughters, his hands contorted, his tongue flicking like that of a lizard, ready to return to the primordial ooze. Marc Grapey’s Lenny is all unctuous menace, and Kelly Van Kirk plays Joey as an utterly daft and possibly lobotomized galoot. More ambiguous–and intriguing–work is offered by Elaine Rivkin, who’s cunning, calculating, sphinxlike, and seductive as Ruth; the always reliable Larry Neumann Jr. as the pathetic elderly bachelor, Sam; and Scott Kennedy, who maintains a glassy-eyed mask of bemusement and inscrutability as Teddy, as if he were watching a horrible dream unfold before his eyes.

With its long-even-for-Pinter pauses, its unmitigated sense of menace, and its profoundly bitter aftertaste, Griffin’s staging seems to resemble the Pinter of the 80s and 90s more than it does the Pinter of 1965, suggesting the period when the playwright began to abandon black humor in favor of starkly rendered horror: it’s as if, once he matured, what had once been amusing didn’t seem funny anymore. It’s not the most uproarious interpretation. But given that The Homecoming is a play about betrayal, family dysfunction, human devolution, and the pathetic brutality of male behavior, maybe that’s the way it should be.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Brad Miller.