The central event in Harold Pinter's 1965 play "The Homecoming" is an ominous thing--puzzling, disturbing, sexually taut and really weird. Critics have argued for years over the meaning of the welcome received by a British professor when he brings his wife home from America to meet the most sinister family this side of the Krays. Director Andrew J. Robinson goes straight to the crooked heart of the play in this new production at the Matrix Theatre in West Hollywood. His "Homecoming" is as fluid and funny as a harrowing ride can be.
The homestead into which the professor brings his wife is a masculine domain, overseen by an aging tyrant of a father, his emasculated brother and two sons, Lenny and Joey, each one menacing in his own way. The men veer between respect for Ruth, the professor's wife, and gross insult, with an emphasis on the latter. Yet Ruth remains strangely unsullied, even when she is pawed.
As he did with his production of Samuel Beckett's "Endgame" a few months ago at the Matrix, Robinson--who in another lifetime played the hippie psychopath in "Dirty Harry"--proves himself a rugged interpreter of enigmatic drama. His actors find comedy in depraved corners of humanity, and they deliver finely etched performances in roles that could be played as blandly archetypal.
Robinson has some kind of special bond, it would seem, with the wonderful Gregory Itzin, who played the cowering Clov in "Endgame." Here, as Lenny, Itzin radiates hostile potential while sitting in an armchair picking horses to bet on from the newspaper. He is a fastidious dresser; his narrow tie and dress socks all seem to indicate a precision cruelty. When, through force of habit, his father threatens him, Lenny answers with a calm, "Don't use your stick on me, Daddy. No, please." His light sarcasm calls up some long-ago day when the boy couldn't defend himself against the man, at the same time serving as a chilling reminder that Lenny now has the means as well as the cause to beat his old dad.
The smartest one in the family, Lenny is sarcastically sure that no one in the room will be able to give him an answer when he ventures a question such as "What do you make of all this business of being and not being?" His working-class accent and bored expression are very funny when he challenges Teddy, his ineffectual professor brother, to a little verbal debate: "I want to ask you something. Do you detect a certain logical incoherence in the central affirmations of Christian theism?"
Granville Van Dusen's Teddy meets his brother's hostile challenge with nothing but a supercilious stare; this is a man who seems to believe he is holding onto his male dignity even as his family stomps on it and then grinds its heel into it. As the other emasculated figure, Uncle Sam, the self-styled "chauffeur" who drives people to the airport, Howard Honig enters looking like an overworked undertaker. His tired face collapses further and further under each fresh insult doled out by his brother Max, the patriarch.
As Max, W. Morgan Sheppard looks like the latter-day Hemingway, with a booming voice that creeps very low to a threat. In his suspenders and cane, he is both frightening and pathetic as the aging, once-terrifying character. It is the genius of the play, seen particularly in Sheppard's performance, that it is both archetypal and very specific, both metaphoric and realistic, at the same time.
Christian Svensson is appropriately Neanderthal and squashed-looking as the amateur boxer Joey, whose lascivious looks at Ruth help build the play's tension. As Ruth, ostensibly the victim of the men's hostility, Sharon Lawrence shows she is in absolute control of the situation at all times with her beauty-school posture and above-it-all stare (she has the alluring, thick-lashed eyes of the original Barbie doll). Her line readings, though, are a bit affected.
Set and lighting designer Neil Peter Jampolis has done a superb job creating a living room that bespeaks long-ago better times for the family. The feminine touch of the dead matriarch--seen in the carefully chosen antimacassars on the faded sofa--has been all but obliterated by male neglect. The entire room has a not-quite-clean gray sheen, and there are water stains on the highest parts of the walls. Yet clearly the room is also a shrine to the dead mother. It seems to hold the secret to the play--it knows what went on there when the boys were young and the mother was still there to protect them or not.
The Matrix offers two casts in "The Homecoming." The actors playing mix and match with the ones I saw are Allan Arbus (Sam), Lynnda Ferguson (Ruth), David Dukes (Teddy), Philip Baker Hall (Max), Sebastian Roche (Joey) and Cotter Smith (Lenny).
* "The Homecoming," Matrix Theatre, 7657 Melrose Ave., West Hollywood, Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 and 7 p.m. No performances Dec. 21-31. Ends Jan. 29. $20, (213) 852-1445. Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes.