There's an old, oft-quoted story among Pinter scholars wherein British playwright Terence Rattigan once tried to tell Harold Pinter what his famously dense 1960 play, "The Caretaker," was really about. Rattigan, the story goes, insisted that this drama about two brothers and a caretaker was actually about "the Old Testament God and the New Testament God with the caretaker as humanity," to which a bemused Pinter famously replied, "It's about two brothers and a caretaker."
Well, of course he did. All those neo-absurdist dramatists loved to torture English department academics. And from Pinter's point of view, this was doubtless the case; the play was not filled with complex symbols created with intent. In 2005, Pinter would get the Nobel Prize in literature and, in his acceptance speech, describe how his way into his plays was invariably through the characters — people who would arrive in Pinter's mind and take him for a walk. So it surely was with "The Caretaker."
This play, once the subject of a famous Steppenwolf Theatre production directed by John Malkovich, is now being directed by Ron OJ Parson at Writers' Theatre in Glencoe. It's about a homeless man named Davies (played by William J. Norris) who is rescued from a bar fight and taken to a cluttered apartment in West London, the domain of two very strange brothers.
In Parson's production, those brothers are played by Anish Jethmalani and Kareem Bandealy. (The bald Bandealy sports a dense wig from costume designer Janice Pytel that utterly transforms his appearance.) Both Bandealy (as Mick) and Jethmalani (as Aston) are men of color; Norris is white. That would not be especially worth noting were it not for Davies' overtly racist observations throughout the play, along with Mick's continued taunting of Davies, whom he calls "a foreigner," leading the old man to insist that he was "born and bred in the British Isles." The first thing that comes into your head as this plays out is that it would be absurd for Davies to remark so often on the race of others, but not remark on the race of the men who are hosting him, just as Mick's nativist rhetoric would hardly come out of the mouth of a nonwhite Brit.
But then, absurdism is part of what's in play here, and thanks in no small measure to Bandealy's formidable acting chops, Mick's banter takes on the air of deep-seated irony. At one point, Mick says Davies reminds him of his uncle's brother, who had "a bit of the Red Indian in him." Bandealy puts the emphasis on the word red," even as his eyes flash just a little. I started seeing Davies as a kind of metaphor for some cantankerous, conservative old Brit lost for good in multicultural Olympic London, but then that's what academics do and what Pinter professed to hate. Still, it's a rich and fresh take-away. This isn't colorblind casting, it's value-added casting and it is the best aspect of this production.
Other, more traditional things are problematic. The key Pinteresque quality that eludes Parson here is dramatic tension; the show was just not all that gripping (some heads around me were starting to nod). I think part of the problem is that Norris' Davies is so far gone in terms of eccentricity that you wonder why the brothers don't just kick the old coot out, when you should be worrying about what they are going to do to him. For all his strangeness, the guy is our way into the play. One has to care about his fate.
Both Jethmalani (who comes with a rich vein of sadness) and Bandealy (who has matured into one of this city's finest stage actors) offer more ambivalent and intriguing characters, but the overall energy of the show still seems to lurch rather than build. In other productions, the skilled Parson has forged some terrifying theatrical landscapes, but menace is muted here, mostly because the terms of engagement aren't clear. Pinter is, of course, fiendishly tricky to do well, and this early era of his writing is especially tough and dependent on a thorough roadmap through levels of subtext and unspoken feeling. This production is not without interest, but not enough for one to fully take all the necessary care.
When: Through March 25
Where: Writers' Theatre, 664 Vernon Ave., Glencoe
Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes