The pairing of a director and a playwright is a mysterious thing. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn’t. But sometimes, as here, it is a perfect marriage. The Lover and The Collection by Harold Pinter at Shakespeare Theatre Company, as directed by Artistic Director Michael Kahn, is the work of a great playwright, as interpreted by a creative team that truly understands him. What’s more, it’s often darkly, delicious fun.
Pinter’s writing has its own special rhythm. It is unmistakable. A legendary Pinter story notes that in the original production of The Collection he gave Michael Holdern (Harry) the following note: “I wrote dot, dot, dot, and you’re giving me dot, dot.” In his work, the music is equally as important as the action on stage. In this production, the music is pitch-perfect and the substance full of subtlety and depth. Set in London in the early 1960’s, these stories remind us once again how profound, and how funny, Pinter really is. Internationally acclaimed playwright, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, Pinter is one of a select group of playwrights (Shakespeare comes to mind) whose name has its own personal adjective. “Pinteresque”. This is both a blessing and a curse. Some people can be misled by the stereotype into missing a fascinating and highly amusing evening in the theater. Lauren Mooney wrote in The Guardian (May 13, 2016), “Bluffer’s guide to Pinter, for those who can’t be bothered: likes a love triangle; well-known east Londoner and affair-haver; go heavy on the Pauses. Tell people Pinter loved a pause, nod sagely, and wait for them to nod back. Tick. That’s Pinter nailed.” Well, not really. Pinter is much, much more.
In The Lover, we see a well-appointed suburban home. The wife, Sarah (Lisa Dwan) wears a tasteful dress, and seamed stockings. The husband, Richard (Patrick Kennedy) enters, and delivers the spectacular first line, amiably: “Is your lover coming today?” It appears we are about to witness some sort of scheduled infidelity. The trick is that the businessman husband and the slightly louche lover are the same person. In rehearsal, Pinter commented:
“They attend the Hunt Ball, play golf. Both of them are sophisticated in the fullest sense of the word. They are socially admired – a thoroughly nice couple. Their obsessional private life is what gives the kick to the routine of their lives…The fantasy-life started as a joke. One day, perhaps, he came home, saw some old clothes in the garage so he changed into them – he thought he would play a joke on the old lady. ‘Is your husband at home?’ he says when she answers the door-bell. ‘No,’ she says, amused. ‘Can I come in? I’ve been wanting to make your acquaintance for some time’….[T]hey probably had sex on the carpet.”
As Sarah, Dwan is coolly confident at first. Kennedy’s Richard, on the other hand, is highly agitated. He fears he is beginning to lose his identity as a husband. In fact, he is ready to make a break in the pattern. What ensues is a series of ever more complicated games; ambiguous, sexualized, and somewhat dangerous. With first-rate performances by Dwan and Kennedy, and Patrick Ball in the small role of John, The Lover is indispensable theater.
The Collection features two couples, one of whom is gay. Stella (Lisa Dwan) and James (Patrick Kennedy), the younger couple, live in a pleasantly furnished Victorian apartment. The affluent, older Harry (Jack Koenig) and his working-class lover Bill (Patrick Ball) occupy a luxurious Georgian row house. In the first scene, we see a phone call made from a classic British phone box, which is picked up by Harry at four in the morning. We later learn that the caller is James, who believes his wife Stella has had a one-night fling with Bill. He is seeking a confrontation with Bill, and, he hopes, the truth about what really happened.
What follows is a series of negotiations regarding who is on top and what the nature of reality is. Harry is possessive and sometimes cruel to his younger lover. Stella, pensively petting her cat, has a muted authority that lingers over the whole piece, despite the rivalries and attractions among the men. Besides the economy of language, the strengths of the piece lie in its silences. In a 1962 speech to The National Student Drama Festival in Bristol, Pinter said:
“We have heard many times that tired, grimy phrase ‘failure of communication’, and this phrase has been fixed to my work quite consistently. I believe the contrary. I think that we communicate only too well, in our silence, in what is unsaid, and that what takes place is a continual evasion, desperate rearguard attempts to keep ourselves to ourselves. Communication is too alarming. To enter into someone else’s life is too frightening. To disclose to others the poverty within us is too fearsome a possibility.”
There is danger, as always in Pinter, as well as many flashes of humor. It is worth noting that Harold, a beloved only child, was evacuated from London in 1939 at the early age of nine. The consequences of war were never far away. One of Pinter’s friends learned that while he was away both of his parents had been killed in an air raid. Pinter’s parents could rarely afford the trip to Cornwall and the experience was by all accounts traumatic for him. In addition, Pinter was in London during the Blitz. The East End, where he lived, saw the worst of the bombing. Pinter said: “You lived in a world in which in winter after five o’clock it was totally black…with chinks of light flashing on the horizon….even the traffic lights were dimmed and…you found your way about with torches. It was also a world that was highly sexual…there was a sexual desperation about the place. People felt their lives could end tomorrow.”
It may be facile to interpret the preoccupations of a dramatist by citing his early experiences. But it is true that Pinter’s sense of danger intensifies the drama under the surface of ordinary interactions. There is much laughter, too, although it is sometimes nervous laughter.
As Harry, Koenig is a formidable figure, but it is hard to avoid the conclusion that he fears losing Bill, his much-younger protégé. Ball balances the implications of his role with precision, the mutual attraction of two men who are involved with the same woman being a constant theme in Pinter. As Stella, Dwan is engaging and curiously elusive. As James, Kennedy shifts from violence to desperate vulnerability with sensitivity and force.
Costumes, by Jane Greenwood, evoke the memories she has mentioned of the early Sixties, while revealing character in intriguing ways. Debra Booth’s Scenic Design is vividly reflective of time, place, and character, while also being visually pleasing. Lighting Designer Mary Louise Geiger and Sound Designer Veronica J. Lancaster’s work has the same distinction and concern for quality which pervades the entire production.
Director Michael Kahn clearly loves this material, and that love gives him a uniquely keen insight into how it should be played. In a time of public coarseness and vulgarity, it is a real pleasure to be among artists who love and respect the English language.
Running Time: Two hours and five minutes, with one 15-minute intermission.
The Lover and The Collection play through October 29 at Shakespeare Theatre Company, performing at Lansburgh Theatre – 450 7th Street NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 547-1122, or purchase them online.