Story: Mr. Roote is in a muddled condition as he sits in his office on Christmas Day. He is the administrator at a government-run institution that is referred to alternately as a rest home or a sanitarium, although it definitely seems to be more the latter.
That’s because there are unsettling goings-on occurring within its walls, including the murder of one of its numbered residents and the impregnation of another nameless soul. These episodes are brought to Roote’s attention by his officious and exacting assistant, Gibbs, who even offers a thinly veiled accusation that Roote may be the cause of both events.
While Roote fumbles about in his own thick-witted way, his amorous mistress, Miss Cutts, flirts seductively with Gibbs as well as a meek underling named Lamb, who hopes to move up the pecking order at the institution despite his leadership shortcomings. Add the oddly menacing ways of Lush, another of Roote’s addled assistants, and this may turn out to be a most unusual holiday.
Highlights: Late, great playwright Harold Pinter wrote this two-act comedy in 1958, shortly after his first published play, The Birthday Party, was produced in 1957. With the critical and popular failure of that initial effort at the time, Pinter put The Hothouse aside and waited more than 20 years to resurrect it.
Thus, the public was deprived for two decades of the bizarre wit and scathing satire etched by Pinter in this clever, two-act work that addresses tragic subjects in irreverent and quirky, humorous style. Irreverent and quirky are two adjectives that can apply with flair to director Suki Peters, whose stamp of madcap mirth is impressed upon a finely wrought production currently being produced by the West End Players Guild.
Other Info: Peters’ players demonstrate both the attitude and aptitude to carry off a clever interpretation of Pinter’s beguiling script. They do so convincingly for the two hours that fill the work’s two acts in this smoothly paced rendition, which plays out effectively on scenic designer Brian Peters’ twin-tiered set that utilizes both the floor and the stage in the Union Avenue Christian Church basement theater.
Add the bizarre sound design of Joshua Cook, which blends traditional holiday tunes with surreal sound effects, complementary lighting by Nathan Schroeder and some cool props furnished by Renee Sevier-Monsey, such as Lamb's 'testing' chair, and you have the trappings for a suitably offbeat show.
Leading the charge of eccentric characters is Roger Erb, who effectively channels John Cleese in both his measured mannerisms and precise delivery of Pinter’s droll lines as the oddly endearing Lush. Watching Erb react unflinchingly to a series of dousings by Robert Ashton as the regal Roote is a humorous highlight of the evening.
Ashton is amusing as the over-matched Roote, a bumbler who stumbled into his role by virtue of hanging around long enough and who is certainly incapable of making an intelligent decision. Roote has a bit of a fatherly affection for his scheming, second-in-command Gibbs as well as an absent-minded fondness for the romantic allure of Miss Cutts.
Zach Wachter, looking quite the fastidious bureaucrat in Beth Ashby’s well-appointed attire, delightfully conveys the buttoned-down menace of the upwardly mobile Gibbs in seditious, unsettling fashion, delivering his lines with keen understatement.
There’s good work, too, by Elizabeth Graveman as the slinky Miss Cutts, who aligns herself with the most likely power-broker of the moment, and Pete Winfrey as the meek and appropriately named Lamb, who proves no match for his more aggressive counterparts.
Nick Kelly and Matt Hanify nicely round out the cast as Tubb, a representative of Roote’s employee minions who presents an inedible cake to Roote as a token of their esteem, and Lobb, another bureaucrat who is called upon to investigate unseemly events that occur under Roote’s watch, respectively.
The characters in Pinter’s world often mask their baser instincts behind a veneer of civility until they strike with deadly precision. That’s apparent in The Hothouse, especially in such a delicious offering as this well-modulated West End Players Guild interpretation.
Play: The Hothouse
Company: West End Players Guild
Venue: Union Avenue Christian Church, 733 Union Avenue
Dates: November 7, 8, 9, 10
Tickets: $20; contact www.WestEndPlayers.org/tickets or 367-0025
Rating: A 4.5 on a scale of 1-to-5.
Photos courtesy of John Lamb