Company Players

at Rally Theater

Chicago certainly doesn’t need another earnest, high-minded, and promising theater group. But it has one in the Company Players, who are making their Chicago debut with nothing less than Harold Pinter’s The Caretaker–a play so full of nuance and ambiguity that it challenges the interpretive skills of veteran actors and directors.

The production isn’t bad. The acting choices, for the most part, are appropriate if uninspired, and one cast member, Rich Komenich, looks as if he’s capable of occasional brilliance. Mercedes Rudkin’s direction, while solid and decisive, is the theatrical equivalent of sensible shoes–but that’s certainly preferable to the excesses practiced by other new groups hoping to garner some quick notoriety.

So the Company Players are yet another small group worth keeping an eye on. Given the group’s track record, they’ll be around for a while–their most conspicuous virtue seems to be tenacity. The Company Players operated for years out of a cramped storefront in an area of Gary, Indiana, so dangerous that the audience had to be locked in for safety, while staging such difficult works as The Homecoming and The Birthday Party by Pinter and Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? After a move to the old Lake County courthouse in Crown Point, they did Long Day’s Journey Into Night and other heavy works.

This commitment to high-mindedness is apparent in the current production of The Caretaker. Pinter’s play, in which two brothers play host to a garrulous old drifter, is a web of tensions. Aston, the brother who brings the old man home to his dreary flat, is simple and sweet; like the statue of the Buddha he keeps on a shelf, he remains utterly unflappable, even in the face of the old man’s grumbling and complaining. Mick is tough and mean. Dressed in a leather jacket, he sneaks up behind the old man and knocks him down, demanding to know what he’s doing in Aston’s flat. Then he pretends the old man, dressed in rags, is a prospective tenant or a possible purchaser of the building. “Where do you bank?” Mick asks him.

The old man–who goes by the name of Davies, though he claims his name is actually Jenkins–is grateful for a place to stay but also somewhat contemptuous of Aston for being so selfless and kind. When Mick hints that he might let Davies replace Aston as caretaker of the property, Davies shifts his loyalties in a flash.

The two brothers represent opposite ways of living in modern society. Aston is quiet and contemplative, seemingly indifferent to the hustle and bustle of life. Mick is a caricature of the rapacious businessman, apparently willing to sell out his own brother if there’s enough profit in it. Davies, who struggles to establish his place between these two options, is also a father figure, and each brother tries to win his attention and affection. Aston is doting and attentive; Mick is the brash adolescent, constantly challenging and berating the old man.

The Company Players’ production makes the tensions within the play palpable, while squeezing out the suspense and the humor embedded in Pinter’s script. The richness and complexity of the play offer infinite choices, and the three actors have made some good ones. Larry Manion, one of the original members of the group, plays Aston as kind and intelligent, but also visibly damaged by the electroshock therapy he received in the mental hospital. Bruce Manion, Larry’s brother, softens Mick’s hard edge with a sense of irony and cynicism, making his character both menacing and funny.

Rich Komenich–who has returned to the group after doing small parts in Hoosiers, Eight Men Out, and other films–does a fine job of capturing the pretensions and the egotism of Davies. His cockney accent is so thick that he’s sometimes difficult to understand, and his gruff delivery could use more variation. But he endows his character with revealing physical gestures, including flamboyant arm movements that suggest the old man’s efforts to assert his own importance. Davies is, after all, the tattered embodiment of bourgeois pretensions, and Komenich deftly projects his character’s desire for comfort, security, and status.

This production is an impressive beginning–it certainly holds its own when compared to the Steppenwolf production a couple of seasons ago. Chicago may not need another promising theater group, but the Company Players should be fun to have around.