This is not a review. Samuel French Inc., the licensing agent representing the Harold Pinter estate in the U.S., has decreed that the Wooster Group's production at REDCAT of Pinter's first play, "The Room," shall not be reviewed.
Let's call this then a critical assessment, an evaluative essay, a ruminative exploration of the work and the producing concerns it raises.
Hell, call it whatever you want. A licensing company can withhold the rights to a play, but it can't dictate the terms of the theatrical conversation. And this production pitting the Wooster Group's postmodern high jinks against Pinter's dreamlike menace is too inviting a spectacle for a critic to ignore.
The back story is a bit blurry, with a fair amount of Pinteresque double talk on both sides. But apparently the Wooster Group had secured the rights to perform "The Room" for a "preview" run in New York last year and assumed that an extension of those rights would be granted for the world premiere in Los Angeles.
After a lengthy delay, the licensing agreement arrived in January with an unexpected restriction on advertising and press. An appeal by the Wooster Group led to some loosening of the terms, but the ban on reviews remained. More damagingly, the company was told that it could not have the rights to do the production elsewhere as planned.
When the news broke, my immediate reaction was that the Pinter estate was taking its cues from the estate of Pinter's idol and mentor, Samuel Beckett, who famously didn't want his plays reset in an abandoned subway station or other updated contexts dreamed up by adventurous directors.
I also couldn't help wondering whether the memory of "Cry, Trojans! (Troilus & Cressida)," the Wooster Group's disastrous 2012 collaboration with the Royal Shakespeare Company, might have played a role. If Shakespeare's savage tragicomedy can be burlesqued in Native American drag, what might these irreverent Yanks do with Pinter's trademark pauses? Fill them with blasting disco?
In point of fact, the Wooster Group has opted to bring in a fiddle for this staging of "The Room," an instrument that occasionally infuses this very British drama with an odd country-and-western twang. A fly swatter and a lute are also plucked, and there's some intermittent singing about the frosty weather, but such liberties are the exception rather than the rule.
Director Elizabeth LeCompte is, indeed, remarkably faithful to the written text. Even the stage directions are spoken aloud (by company member Ari Fliakos, who discreetly changes clothing for two supporting roles). The presentation may have recognizable Wooster Group trappings (tables with technical equipment are openly manned on the margins of the stage), but the play is undeniably Pinter's.
The result, however, is neither fish nor fowl. The company's trademark avant-garde style, layering an elaborate technical design over a nonliteral, nonlinear approach to stage action, is strangely flattened. Pinter's drama, with its distinctive mix of idiomatic precision and surreal story, suffers an equivalent loss of vigor.
Dressed in a bulky cardigan with a Roman numeral incongruously displayed on the back, Kate Valk plays Rose, the old woman who doesn't want to leave the safety of the room she inhabits with her laconic husband, Bert (Scott Renderer). Rose talks incessantly about the murderous cold outside and the pleasant warmth inside as she prepares a meal of bacon and eggs before he has to go out for a delivery run in his van.
When Mr. Kidd (Fliakos), the landlord or caretaker (identity is never pinned down in Pinter), drops by, Rose continues her nervous chatter as Bert sinks deeper into silence. Pinter's drama at this point is purely atmospheric, the strange foreboding hinting at territorial struggle, the provisional nature of relationships and the precarious security of any shelter.
Valk, whose mode of acting isn't to inhabit but obliquely theatricalize a character, puts quotation marks around Rose's words. Meaning is only lightly touched on. At moments it seems as though she were being fed the dialogue through an earpiece.
Valk's detachment lends the impression of a cold reading. This is no doubt intentional, but to what effect? She goes through the motions of "The Room" in a ghostly fashion, but nothing new is created in the play's opening scene, which prefigures what Pinter will do more effectively in "The Birthday Party" when Meg natters on about the corn flakes.
The production picks up when Rose, alone now in the room, opens the door and discovers a couple standing outside. Mr. Sands (Fliakos) and Mrs. Sands (Suzzy Roche), who are styled here with an outré vividness, are looking for the landlord. They were just in the basement, a place of darkness that fascinates and terrifies Rose, and have been told that there's a vacancy in the building. Rose reacts like a character cornered in a Kafka tale.
The final scene, proceeding with the resonant illogic of a nightmare, calls for the entrance of "a blind Negro." (The play was written in 1957.) Riley (Philip Moore), a man Rose claims not to know, has a message from her father: "Come home, Sal." Rose furiously rejects that this man knows her but then tacitly concedes a connection just as her husband returns from his trip. Bert's silence is finally — and violently — broken.
"The Room," though more of a dramatic sketch than a fully realized play, contains, nonetheless, the essence of Pinter's dramaturgy. The scenario of holed-up characters being intruded upon by emissaries from the past is paradigmatic for the playwright. The language demonstrates Pinter's uncanny ear and deft comic timing. Paranoia is made to seem at once ridiculous and prophetic. The outsider, forever an object of fear, is the target of sickening brutality.
How much of this comes through the Wooster Group's filter? Not enough for those who know the play well and probably too much for those who want to experience the peculiar intensities of the company's own aesthetic. Half-measures — the same problem that afflicted "Cry, Trojans!" when it came to REDCAT in 2014 without the RSC — satisfy no one.
The Wooster Group has run into problems with playwrights before. The company's production of "L.S.D. (...Just the High Points...)" was halted for a period after lawyers for Arthur Miller complained that a portion of his play "The Crucible" was being used without his permission. Miller clarified to the New York Times the nature of his objection: "Maybe at some point in the future the play will become a kind of public classic. But I'm still around and I should have a say about how the play is done as long as I am."
"The Room" may be noteworthy chiefly for adumbrating Pinter's themes and stylistic procedures, but there's no doubt that the work of this Nobel Prize-winning author, who died in 2008, has achieved the status of "modern classic." In my view, the Pinter estate is setting an unfortunate precedent by withholding the future rights of the play to this internationally illustrious company, whose interest in Pinter only enhances his artistic stature, no matter the success of the production.
What's more, nothing artistic director LeCompte stages is in direct competition with anything else. Her work, performed in a pocket venue away from the bustle of New York's commercial theater, is the very definition of sui generis. This version of "The Room," though still just the equivalent of a photographic negative, ought to be given time to develop.
The Wooster Group has had great success in tackling classics. "House/Lights" which incorporates Gertrude Stein's "Dr. Faustus Lights the Lights," and "To You, the Birdie! (Phèdre)," which has a field day with Racine's tragedy, are two of the most imaginative deconstructions I've seen. The company seems to have gone on something of a technological diet in recent years, skimming its stagecraft of screens and computer jangle. This might be a transitional moment, another step toward a sparer aesthetic, as last year's production of "Early Shaker Spirituals: A Record Album Interpretation" suggests.
Pinter may have felt as strongly as Beckett about the sanctity of a playwright's work, but he was also a ferocious champion of artistic expression. The theater, the most public of literary art forms, depends on such freedom.
The remarkable cultural contribution of the Wooster Group entitles the company to that most valuable of creative freedoms: the freedom to fail.
Where: REDCAT, 631 W. 2nd St. L.A.
When: 8:30 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday. Ends Feb. 14.
Info: (213) 237-2800, www.redcat.org
Running time: 50 minutes