Story: It’s been a while since Teddy’s been back to the modest home in North London where he grew up. His mother has passed away, but his father and two brothers still live there, along with his dad’s brother Sam.
When Teddy arrives unannounced late one summer evening, he’s accompanied by his wife Ruth, whom his family has never met in their six years of marriage. Teddy and Ruth are on holiday from the States, where he is a university philosophy professor and she cares for their three young sons.
They speak briefly with Teddy’s younger brother Lenny, who seems unimpressed with them and doesn’t even bother to mention their presence to anyone else. The next morning brings an unspectacular welcome from Max, the loutish father and a retired butcher, and Joey, the youngest son who works in demolition by day and trains as a boxer after hours. Only Uncle Sam, a refined chauffeur, seems happy to see the prodigal son returned.
Max despises ‘whores’ in his house and talks about how ugly his wife was. Lenny appears to make his living as a pimp, while Joey is lucky to know if it’s day or night. Yet, there’s a peculiar bond growing between the restless, provocative Ruth and her husband’s clan.
Highlights: It’s been half a century since the late Harold Pinter wrote this peculiar, off-kilter, two-act drama that embodies his work as a whole with its delicate savagery. It’s one of the plays that helped catapult Pinter’s career, along with dramas such as The Birthday Party and Betrayal.
It’s a perfect fit for the “Sins of the Father” theme of the current season at St. Louis Actors’ Studio, and director Milton Zoth and his savvy cast ensure a jolly good time for their audience with a deliciously incisive presentation of Pinter at his best, or worst, or whatever.
Other Info: A hallmark of Pinter’s writing is his deft ability to peel away the surface civility of people with a surgeon’s precision and get to their animal instincts. Such is the case with The Homecoming, which is dominated by an ongoing sense of menace in the decrepit old dump of a house where Teddy and his brothers were raised.
Patrick Huber’s scenic design, augmented by scenic artist Cristie Johnston, shows a shabby, somewhat squalid abode where the back wall is so dingy that silhouettes of missing pictures dominate the tiny living room. Props designer Carla Landis Evans adds grimy little touches and her costume design highlights the dingy, dirty T-shirts favored by Max and Lenny in contrast to the professional attire of Teddy and Sam. Huber lights everything to underscore the depressing, seamy locale, while Robin Weatherall’s sound design is a mixture of the melancholy and the somber.
With Pinter, as much happens with a pause or a look or uncomfortable silence as with his biting, caustic and sniping dialogue. A scene where Max is rambling incoherently to Teddy and Joey, e.g., is highlighted by Lenny’s leering looks at Ruth behind her back, as Zoth and his cast capture the depravity lurking beneath the coarse conversation.
In a production of winning performances, Charlie Barron stands out for his coolly sadistic portrayal of Lenny. The middle brother in this English Karamazov clan, he shows us an alpha male who is adept at manipulation, a shrewd poker player careful never to reveal his sordid hand.
Ben Ritchie’s effective performance as Teddy carefully emphasizes his character’s distance from his primal family, psychologically and intellectually as well as geographically. Teddy’s return home is an obligatory, after-the-fact conclusion to a European vacation, devoid of passion and designed as a denouement to a situation that gives him no satisfaction.
Larry Dell brings a nicely nuanced portrayal to Sam, Max’s sensitive and civilized brother, an odd fit for this crude collection of cads but one who serves an important economic function, namely a regular paycheck.
Peter Mayer excels at the oafish humor of Max, a character who amounts to an unstable eruption of babbling incoherence and nonsense, although Mayer’s intense, rushed delivery sometimes muddles Max’s dialogue. As Joey, Nathan Bush humorously depicts the youngest brother’s challenges with both the profound and the mundane, with expressions as blank as that back wall.
The beguiling and devious development of Ruth is finely crafted in Missy Heinemann’s intriguing portrayal. As Ruth entrenches herself into Teddy’s dysfunctional family of three opposite brothers, she sets the stage perhaps for her own sons’ uncertain, unanchored futures. Heinemann is coy, seductive and willfully destructive in equal measures.
It may be 50 years since Pinter wrote The Homecoming, but his ability to sketch psychological war zones keeps this pensive drama fascinating and relevant.
Play: The Homecoming
Company: St. Louis Actors’ Studio
Venue: Gaslight Theater, 358 North Boyle
Dates: May 29, 30, 31, June 1, 5, 6, 7, 8
Tickets: $25-$30; contact 1-800-982-2787 or ticketmaster.com
Rating: A 5 on a scale of 1-to-5.
Photos courtesy of John Lamb