Harold Pinter's 'The Homecoming' at ACT is Transfixing, Juicy and Unsavory

A "homecoming" may invoke images of warmth and tears, a thanksgiving dinner perhaps, family members reunited after too, too much time. In Harold Pinter's The Homecoming, the title is facetious, as are any niceties that may be uttered by family members in this brutal nasty household.

Funny-peculiar -- and moreover funny-spooky, surreal and unsettling, The Homecoming, opened on Wednesday at the American Conservatory Theater. The production is riveting -- even though the audience really didn't know when to laugh; everything is funny. And nothing is.

What makes Pinter's play absurdist -- and not tragic -- is the way in which things slip from bad to worse, how plausible meanness slides into blasé bizarreness.

Nobody really rips one another to shreds; no one busts the fourth wall of decorum, verbal decorum that is. But when dear old dad reunites with his long absent son, when brothers gather together, the family kills with a menacing kindness. Even endearments -- "dear dad" and "my son" are spoken with a dripping, hateful sarcasm.

Written in 1964, the play seems to mock domestic dramas where the past haunts the present, like Long Day's Journey in Night. It seems to parody the unexpected cruelty of a play like Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, which was staged two years earlier. Indeed, Pinter's Max and Lenny and Teddy and Joey make Albee's George and Martha look like a happily married couple.

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Jack Willis plays Max, a mean-spirited father of three grown sons, two of whom still live with him. His brother Sam, (Kenneth Welsh) lives with them too, in a house where harshness and bitterness are as thick as the cigar smoke.

Into this simmering swill walks the son who got away -- Teddy, who arrives with his chilly wife, Ruth. Played with apt refined inertness by Anthony Fusco, Teddy is a success in America, a scholar, a father, a husband. But his wife isn't really facilitating Teddy's above-it-all superiority. René Augesen captivates as Ruth, a sphinxian minx who navigates -- or does she steer? -- the unexpected goings on as they warp from odd to psycho.

A British critic once wrote that all of Pinter's scenes can be reduced to the question, "whose on top right now?" In The Homecoming's masculine household, violence and menace are familiar weapons. But when a woman enters the house -- her red dress an arresting contrast to the dull palate and grimy walls -- sexuality is the sharpest tool in the arsenal.

Max is a butcher by trade, skilled with the meat cleaver. Youngest son Joey is something of a meat head, a boxer who works "in demolition." (Adam O'Byrne plays the guileless pretty boy.) But it is the oily, unctuous Lenny, whose occupation is shadier, who is the best match for Ruth's brand of stealth combat.

As Lenny, Andrew Polk is a threatening and electric creep. Early on, he and Ruth have a tense dance of words in which small talk and manners evolve into intimidation and challenge and a psychological poker game over a glass of water.

Under Carey Perloff's effective direction, what's uncomfortable becomes inappropriate and what's inappropriate becomes twisted and nonsensical.

What transpires is so enigmatic, I wouldn't want to ruin the surprise. But for Pinter, it's much more about the mood, the plot is just a vehicle. Pinter's nightmare is not scary or even surprisingly awful. What is often most unsettling about a bad dream is that, within its own context, everything seems normal and it is difficult to identify how it is not.

It's only the audience, (outside looking in), who sees that something is very, very wrong. Pinter is a master at drawing us into this twilight sleep.

The Homecoming runs through March 27, 2011 at the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco. For tickets and information visit act-sf.org or call 415.749.2228.

All photos: Kevin Berne.

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