Harold Pinter plays too often become objects of academic analysis. Salt Lake Acting Company’s production of Pinter’s 1960 breakthrough play The Caretaker reminds you why they’re also something you should experience.
It’s easy to understand why scholars would want to grapple with this meaty text. There’s nothing simple about the interactions between its three characters: quiet Aston (Daniel Beecher); Aston’s brother Mick (Matthew Ivan Bennett); and Davies (Joe Cronin), the itinerant older man Aston brings back to his junk-strewn upstairs room. The room itself feels like an exploded metaphor factory, with its suspended bucket catching a slow drip of water, disconnected gas stove and window perpetually letting in the elements. And there’s plenty to chew on contemplating Davies’ ranting speeches or why exactly Aston and Mick might want the old man to stay in the first place.
But as is the case with Shakespeare, encountering the words on the page isn’t the same as seeing the entire work performed. Pinter’s script is darkly humorous, filled with absurdist punch lines and terrific moments of deadpan understatement. Set designer Keven Myhre does a magnificent job of making the physical space of the room virtually a fourth character in the play. The confrontations veer from hilarious to deeply unnerving, sometimes within the space of a single line of dialogue. It isn’t merely intellectually intriguing, it’s genuinely exciting.
If SLAC’s production lacks anything, it’s powerhouse performances from all three leads to match the material. Cronin does exceptional work as Davies, his perpetually fidgeting hands capturing his rapid-fire, often unreliable state of mind—and it’s all the more impressive that he took over the role after rehearsals had already begun. Beecher and Bennett, on the other hand, merely offer solid interpretations; Beecher in particular has difficulty turning Aston’s blank stares into something sympathetic.
In some plays, it would be a massive problem if the actors at times seemed simply to be getting out of the way of the text, rather than inhabiting the characters. But director John Vreeke provides a staging that allows Pinter’s densely packed material to come through, even when the performances are less than perfect. The Caretaker comes with a sense of humor, a conscience and a society-dissecting scalpel—and it really takes being in a theater seat to appreciate it all.