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
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
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
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
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
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.