It shouldn’t take 40 years to figure out what a play is about unless

it is by Harold Pinter. However, a superb cast, under the direction of

Daniel Sullivan, has made the task a lot easier in this excellent

production in celebration of the play’s 40th anniversary.

Generally acknowledged as the patron saint of the dramatic or pregnant

pause, Pinter is more generously admired for his ability to hold in

abeyance the latent mysteries within his texts that include such

famously puzzling plays as "The Birthday Party," "The Caretaker," "No

Man’s Land," and "Betrayal." Able to use what is left unspoken or at

least half-spoken and giving it the dramatic hook it deserves is a

formidable achievement. Pinter uses that gift with fastidious skill in

this work.

Forty years has not dimmed the menacing black humor, the chilling

cliff-hanging twists, and the unpredictable characters embedded in

"The Homecoming." More apparent than ever is the play’s need for an

ensemble effort, something that director Sullivan has managed to

instill despite the company’s cultural mix. The brisk pace that he

takes can hardly be said to be calibrated in deference to Peter Hall’s

original, more measured staging for the Royal Shakespeare Company in

1968. A quickened pace is fine, although it works better in Act I when

the unknown and the unexpected propel the action. If Act II is a bit

of a letdown, it is because the play becomes more aggressively

outrageous, if not absurd, as it relies on the manifestation of the

psycho-sexual projections of the characters rather than any construct

of reality.

And how much fun it is to watch these fine actors portray the multiple

layers of their existence. Ian McShane, no stranger to Pinter, having

played Mick in the television production of "The Caretaker," is a hoot

as Max, the domineering and terrorizing patriarch who bullies his

three sons into submissiveness. Best known for his award-winning

performance as Al Sweearengen in the HBO series "Deadwood," McShane

bulldozes his way through the old family home, brandishing a cane as

lethal as any sword.

A cumulative tension, most of it sexual, mounts as the youngest and

middle sons – Joey (Gareth Saxe), a dim-witted boxer, and Lenny (Raul

Esparza), an arrogant pimp – become intrigued and ultimately

mesmerized by the covert sexuality of the older brother’s wife, Ruth,

(Eve Best). Esparza, an actor of exceptional talent and versatility,

who gave the definitive performance of Bobby last season in "Company,"

is right at home in Pinterland. He injects his scenes with Ruth with

the kind of deliberately devilish baiting that is both exciting and

unnerving.

Teddy (James Frain), the oldest son, a Ph.D. who has brought his wife

to visit the family, is faced with the possibility that she may be

deliberately insinuating herself into the family’s favor. But that is

speculative, typical of the way the play hints at many motives and

many reasons for a lot of very peculiar but also vastly entertaining

behavior.

Best, who won just about every award there was last season for her

performance as Josie in "A Moon for the Misbegotten (reviewed in U.S.1

May 16, 2007), probably has the play’s toughest role as she goes from

a point of veiled indifference to various states of complicity, a

journey made with the prescribed minimum of physical action. The

harrowing edge to her portrayal is riveting.

McKean gives a fine performance as Max’s gentle brother, Sam, a

chauffeur by profession, who harbors family secrets. Saxe is also

fascinating to watch as the pathetic Joey, whose lust proves as

listless as his boxing career.

The scene in which the family has a ritualistic cigar light-up is

marvelously funny and also commendable for not affecting the air in

the theater. Eugene Lee’s setting did what was expected of it to

suggest a home without a woman’s touch, including the large gape in

the plaster board wall that the men have no intention of ever fixing.

This determinedly foggy but entertaining play never ceases to arouse

speculation to its meaning: Women as whores in the eyes of men and/or

men as the ways and means to power and possession in the eyes of

women. But whatever it is, a good time is sure to be had by all. HHH

"The Homecoming," through Sunday, April 13, the Cort Theater, 138 West

48th Street. $26.50 to $98.50. 212-239-6200.

Top Of PageAugust: Osage County

Come spring you will undoubtedly see Tracy Letts’ extravagantly

lengthy, excitingly plotted and consistently entertaining dark comedy

sweeping the major awards and most likely the Pulitzer Prize as well.

All about one of the most dysfunctional families you have ever had the

pleasure of spying on, "August: Osage County" will keep you laughing

so hard and long that you may want to go back just to hear what you

may have missed. The strength and wonder of Letts’ play, an instant

success when it first appeared this past summer at Chicago’s

Steppenwolf Theater, is that it draws you into its multi-character

oeuvre without noticeable pretension.

One can only assume that the plays of Eugene O’Neill, Tennessee

Williams, Edward Albee, and even the less provocative Horton Foote

inspired, indeed, empowered Letts to bring to theatrical life so many

richly developed family members under one roof. There are no less than

a dozen, each one defined by enough emotional turmoil, personal guilt,

and familial disdain and distrust to support a dozen separate plays.

We have grown accustomed to appreciating the quirky and queasy

elements in previous Letts plays as "Bug" and "Killer Joe." But

"August" propels him into another orbit, one overflowing with salient

wit and a wickedly deployed sensibility, qualities he now shares with

the best contemporary playwrights.

The play begins as Beverly Weston (played by the playwright’s father,

Dennis Letts), the family patriarch and an alcoholic poet, is

interviewing a Cheyenne woman (Kimberly Guerrero) to keep house and

serve as a caregiver to his wife, Violet (Deanna Dunagan), who is

dying of cancer of the mouth and is addicted to pain killers.

Beverly’s sudden disappearance brings the entire Weston clan back to

the Oklahoma home, where they are individually and collectively

subjected to Violet’s acerbic tongue, as cruelly honest as it is

conducive to exposing every family secret, rivalry, indiscretion,

deception, betrayal, and destructive tendency that has previously gone

unspoken. The ensemble acting, under Anna D. Shapiro’s direction, is

extraordinary and its concerted effect on us is awesome.

The formidable and vindictive Mattie Fae (Rondi Reed) matches her

sister Violet’s venom as she takes relish in putting down her tolerant

husband, Charlie (Francis Guinan), and belittling her unmotivated son,

Little Charles (Ian Barford). However, it is Violet’s three daughters

who receive the brunt of Violet’s purge. Middle-aged Barbara (Amy

Morton) is particularly vulnerable, considering that her husband, Bill

(Jeff Perry), a teacher – although he has accompanied her – now living

with one of his students, and that Jean (Madeleine Martin), their

14-year-old daughter, is a little too fond of smoking pot. Karen

(Mariann Mayberry), who has a history of picking the wrong guy, shows

up with someone that she hopes is Mister Right. How wrong can she be?

And how wrong is Ivy (Sally Murphy) about her future with the man she

is rightfully fearful of telling everyone she is in love with?

The family home has been excellently evoked by designer Todd Rosenthal

to give ample latitude for these volatile people to unload their

emotional baggage, all the while we are made to laugh at their

downward spiraling lives. HHHH

"August: Osage County," through April 13, Imperial Theater, 245 West

45th Street. $26.50 to $99.50; premium seats: $176.50. 212-239-6200.

Top Of PageThe Farnsworth Invention

There is plenty to admire and ponder in Aaron Sorkin’s quasi-factual

almost biographical drama about the beginning of television,

specifically the conflict between Midwest scientist Philo T.

Farnsworth and founder of RCA and NBC bigwig David Sarnoff (Hank

Azaria) for control of the patent rights. Sorkin, whose last

Broadway-produced play, "A Few Good Men," was in 1989, has primarily

won acclaim as a writer for film (the current "Charlie Wilson’s War")

and television ("The West Wing").

His noble effort to dramatically chronicle the progress, sparring, and

the legal disputes between Franworth and Sarnoff, two highly motivated

men, is a worthy one. If their personal lives, as traced from their

youth, and their loves are left somewhat undernourished, there are

plenty of hot-under-the-collar episodes to keep you involved. The

play, nevertheless, has an air of docudrama about it that some will

find more suitable to filming than as a staged work.

For those of us who have never given much thought to the origins of

television and for those who relish looking into the back story of the

men who were determined to reap the honors, rewards, and the glory,

"The Farnsworth Invention" is consistently interesting (don’t be

afraid of that word). It is Sorkin’s gift for gritty and glistening

dialogue that propels each scene. The play has been handsomely

produced and features an unusually large cast of 19 excellent actors

playing wives, lovers, and others, under the firm direction of Des

McAnuff.

It is the extraordinarily fine acting by Azaria and Simpson that earns

our committed attention. Curiously much of the dialogue is in the form

of exposition, as Sarnoff and Farnsworth are consigned to bridge the

play’s many scenes with audience-directed speeches. Never dull, but it

rather brazenly defies the usual "don’t tell us, show us" dictates of

good theater, or at least since the days of Greek drama.

A little investigation proved to me that the facts have, indeed, been

tampered with, particularly certain court rulings. The need for

dramatic license serves, however, to engine Sarnoff’s resort to spying

on the Farnsworth progress so that the RCA’s scientist, Vladimir

Zworykin (Bruce McKenzie), is able to achieve a major breakthrough

ahead of Farnsworth. Azaria presents a rather calculating and ruthless

image of Sarnoff, a Russian immigrant. But he also projects a

charismatic personality that flavors his oratorical posturing.

Simpson, who is making his Broadway debut, is superb as the

overwhelmed and underfunded titular character. He earns our empathy as

he combats alcoholism and depression in the light of his failure to

outsmart his adversary. The funniest line in the play: "Television is

going to end illiteracy and war." HHH

"The Farnsworth Invention," the Music Box Theater, 239 West 45th

Street. $56.50 to $101.50. 212-239-6200.

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