Harold Pinter started out 1957 as a 26-year-old English actor of no particular distinction, working as “David Baron.” But then, the story has it, a director friend named Henry Woolf asked Pinter to write a quick play for him. Pinter had done some poetry and fiction before, but never a play. He refused Woolf’s invitation, saying he’d need a minimum of six months to come up with something. Yet four days later Woolf received Pinter’s script for The Room, which A Red Orchid Theatre is currently presenting in a rare and interesting, if flawed, revival.
What’s surprising about The Room is how thoroughly Pinterian it is. This isn’t the conventional first effort, scrupulous about conventions. The familiar anomie and the famous menace are already there. The confined quarters. The anxious discourses on trivial subjects. The visitors from nowhere. The sudden violence.
An 80-minute one-act, The Room plays less like a story than a series of creepy, half-understood (i.e., Pinteresque) incidents. It introduces us to Rose, who shares a snug little apartment with her significant other, Bert the van driver. She makes him bacon, eggs, and weak tea, goes on and on about how cold it is outside and how very much she doesn’t want to be out there. She’s also preoccupied with what she supposes are the damp conditions in the basement apartment below. Bert reads a magazine and speaks not at all. The landlord, Mr. Kidd, shows up. He and Rose talk past each other; though he’s addressed, Bert maintains his silence. Mr. Kidd leaves, and then so does Bert. Rose is surprised by two strangers, Mr. and Mrs. Sands, who’ve heard from a mysterious someone in the basement that there’s a room available in the building—room number seven, in fact, which just happens to be the number of Rose’s snug little apartment. The Sandses leave and Mr. Kidd reappears, this time telling Rose there’s a blind visitor in the basement who insists on talking with her. Rose receives the visitor, Riley, with bitter reluctance. He gives her a message. Bert comes home, having finally found his voice. Something ugly happens.
In his 1996 biography Harold Pinter, British critic Michael Billington runs through various interpretations of these occurrences, from the psychological to the theological to a compensatory combination of both (Pinter working out his guilt over marrying a non-Jew). Then he writes: “One aspect of The Room . . . is its social accuracy: in particular, its portrait of a walled-in isolationism and paranoid xenophobia that was to become a feature of English life in the late 1950s and that has grown to hideous proportions ever since.” Billlington goes on to prove his case by connecting Rose’s insular inclinations (“we keep ourselves to ourselves”)—not to mention her worry about what may be going on in the basement—to a spike in nativist racism as dark-skinned immigrants from former colonial possessions surged into England proper.
Billington’s observation certainly resonates with the current, Trumpian moment in America, and director Dado capitalizes on that resonance here. Her Rose and Bert, Kirsten Fitzgerald and HB Ward, read as Europe-bred whites while everyone surrounding them comes in hues suggesting origins from South Asia to the eastern ends of the Mediterranean. But Dado doesn’t stop there. Where blind Riley has been historically depicted as a black man, she renders the character as transgender too, putting Jo Jo Brown in a long dress under a man-cut coat. Interestingly, Riley isn’t simply an alien threat, another nail in the coffin of Rose’s sense of order: His message for her at least implies the possibility of a less fearful alternative to the realities of room number seven.
Possibly because Pinter is dead and The Room‘s relative obscurity means that audiences come to it with fewer expectations, Dado seems willing to swing freely. She loads her production up with extratextual gimmicks, some of which are funny (the apartment is overrun with potatoes that Rose has to move out of the way just to sit down) or telling (the Sandses do some premature redecorating during their visit) or striking (Grant Sabin’s set features lots of slammable doors). But as witty as these gestures are, they promote a sense of the absurd that ultimately undermines what happens in The Room. Just because the play’s events don’t resolve themselves into an unambiguous narrative doesn’t mean they’re arbitrary. There’s a necessity to Rose’s experiences, weird as they are. And a reality to her world, disorienting as it is. Dado’s embellishments often do more to obscure than enhance both. v