European Repertory Company

at Shattered Globe Theatre

Harold Pinter wrote The Hothouse in 1958 but set it aside until 1979, when he reread it and decided it was “worth presenting on the stage,” as he writes in the introduction to the play. Today it’s still worth it, and not just because it exposes the lack of humaneness in a government mental institution–a condition that no doubt still exists in many medical facilities. It also examines the lack of humaneness in society in general.

It’s no accident that we never see even one patient, only staff members who gossip about patients, referred to by number. Pinter relegates patients to an offstage netherworld, showing their lack of importance to the very staff hired to treat them. The only staff job described in any detail is that of the lock tester, who sees that “all the gates are locked outside the building and that all the patients’ doors are locked inside the building.” Pinter makes it clear that the patients aren’t the only inmates of this suffocating “hothouse.” It’s Christmas day, yet none of the staff leave the premises or even talk about their families.

It sounds depressing, but this is only the dark side of this black comedy. As Pinter himself has suggested, he lets any messages come from the humor in his plays. His characters’ small talk–which is funny because it’s only an exaggeration of what we might say ourselves–reveals their ulterior motives, pettiness, nobility, weaknesses, and strengths. The Hothouse begins with a typical conversation between Mr. Roote, the chief of staff, and Gibbs, his annoying assistant: “Gibbs.” “Yes, sir?” “Tell me . . . ” “Yes, sir?” “How’s 6457 getting on?” “6457, sir?” “Yes.” “He’s dead, sir.” A few words suffice to capture Gibbs, irritatingly deferential and coolly businesslike, and Roote, hopelessly out of touch with his patients.

Pinter’s portrait of Roote’s ineptitude and twisted code of ethics is scathing–which is to say hysterical. When Roote learns a female patient has given birth he is enraged, not because one of his staff is the father but because the guilty party did not “take precautions.” Roote condones, even encourages sex “in the interest of science,” but he warns, “Never ride barebacked and always send in a report.”

To Roote order is the ultimate goal, one he’s determined to attain, whatever the sacrifice of anything meaningful–such as helping his patients. Career advancement is another socially acceptable pursuit, and one Pinter portrays as equally worthless, silly, and dangerous. It’s clear that Gibbs is a go-getter, and even Lamb, the shy, nervous lock tester, thinks his promotion is overdue. Pinter plants a dark thought. What lengths will they take to get ahead? When Roote recalls how his predecessor “retired,” he hesitates just long enough for us to suspect foul play had a part in his own promotion.

Though the play sustains a vaguely sinister feel throughout, we’re unprepared for the final act of violence (offstage) that forcibly ends the frivolity. For Pinter, it seems, the play has to be more than funny to awaken us to the darkest side of human nature, the brutality that lives side by side with the foibles. It’s true that without a jolt some viewers may be content to enjoy Hothouse simply for its steady flow of laughs. But the melodrama in the second act is inconsistent with the snappy banter and absurdly funny situations of the first. The second act also reveals Pinter’s lack of faith in the substance behind his humor.

Going for hard laughs from the start–and getting most of them–the European Repertory Company and director Dale Goulding aren’t afraid of being too funny to be taken seriously. Yasen Peyankov stands out as Lamb, meandering through monologues thick with sincerity and physical and verbal tics. Originally from Bulgaria, Peyankov gives Lamb stuttered hard consonants, interrupting himself intermittently with a nasal, self-conscious “mmmm.” More than a skilled comedian, Peyankov succeeds in making Lamb a study in vulnerability and good intentions–he’s the perfect contrast to the calculating malevolence we sense in Gibbs, Roote, and their shared mistress, Miss Cutts.

It’s hard to be sorry that Peyankov almost upstages his fellow players, who are excellent but not amazing–such as Mary Kay Blaschke as the sometimes whimpering, sometimes barracudalike Cutts, and Simon Perry, who gives the cynical Lush the appropriate dryness without dripping sarcasm. As Roote and Gibbs, Mark Guest and Steve Heller are mostly good, but they land too hard on their punch lines, especially in the first scene: perhaps too eager for laughs, Guest leaps to bug-eyed irritation and Heller to tight-lipped superiority.

For these performances at the Shattered Globe, Goulding has adapted a set designed by Joe Forbrich for another play. But one room outfitted with a desk, couch, and file cabinet is all that’s needed to imply the spiritually bankrupt staff offices. The wood slats on the walls, through which we glimpse a painted outdoors, may have been designed for another production but perfectly underscore the sense of decay in The Hothouse.

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