For two nights running, abject humiliation has been at the root of a pair of dark comedies currently playing in Stratford. In Hosanna, an abrasive, inwardly insecure drag queen gets her comeuppance in a very public Halloween costume party (cross-reference below). Twenty-four hours later, the only outwardly successful son, Teddy, pays an unannounced visit to his family home. He bolted from London to America six years back where his PhD secured him “everything I could want” including an attractive wife, Ruth (the biblical reference is not entirely unfounded) and three darling boys.
Imagine how it must have felt for the successful professor finding his bride responding lustily to the sexual advances of his younger siblings. Surely there would be fisticuffs, perhaps a duel or two (both Lenny and especially Joey) or, at the very least, a brutal tongue lashing. None of the above, for this is a Harold Pinter script.
Written in 1964, the play must have been (and still is to theatregoers unfamiliar with this work) a shock for those who thought life with My Three Sons was family bliss American style.
Instead, Pinter constructs a home bereft of women but fuelled by their memory or supported by their avails. The patriarch is retired butcher, Max. His wife, Jessie, dutifully bore him three males—a few suggestions that at least one or the entire lot were not sired by “Dad” linger intriguingly in the mix—but died before her time. Gamely filling the feminine void is Sam: Max’s younger (63) brother does much of the washing up and boasts of being the “best chauffeur in the firm.” Having never married and most believably a perfect gentleman when escorting his female clients or, frequently—Max reports that he worked “long hours to keep two families in luxury”—Jessie, there’s not much doubt that his brother’s vulgar accusation about bending over for a trifle in the bushes is another harsh fact laid bare. Incredibly, masterfully, Max upon first meeting his sudden daughter-in-law viciously berates her as “a stinking pox-ridden slut”—much to the horror of the opening night crowd—only to discover much later that there was more than a modicum of truth in his crass putdown. But having lived with Jessie’s “rotten stinking face” for so many years, perhaps he has an instinct for ferreting out what’s beneath the alluring surface of the opposite sex.
One of the numerous reasons to see this production is to savour the craft. Two wanted kisses speak volumes and solidify the already brilliant, taut construction. At the close of Act I, Max asks his estranged son if he’d like to “have a nice cuddle and kiss.” As the second act concludes, Max begs for a kiss from Ruth (who has now completely turned the tables and rules the sorry/sordid roost). No spoilers here: do find your way to Stratford and see how the master playwright handles both electrifying situations.
The acting is uniformly excellent.
Brian Dennehy (as he did a few seasons ago in Hughie/Krapp’s Last Tape) got into and under the skin of Max. He spits out his venomous taunts and insults with the conviction of the internally damned yet still manages to find the perfect balance when his own desperation to be acknowledged—much less loved—boils up through the bile to the surface. Employing his entire body—notably the hands; using, then tellingly, abandoning his walking stick—silently reinforces the brilliant characterization every step of the way.
Largely silent or uttering timid banalities, Mike Shara’s Teddy reveals still another layer of range in the increasingly versatile actor. Stoic to a fault (“Of course I like them,” he confirms to Ruth even as his dad and brothers mock, ogle or covet her), it’s a performance that ideally contrasts the incestuous souls around him. Only the semi pratfall tarnishes the overall effect.
Lenny the pimp—with just a touch too much Eric Idle in the accent—comes to greasy life in the personage of Stratford newcomer Aaron Krohn. The difficult role fuels both the humour and the drama. Tarver has given everyone—particularly Krohn—free rein to go for the show’s many laughs, but it was more than a bit unsettling to hear a large percentage of the audience roar heartily as the purveyor of flesh recounts his savage beating of an unwitting woman.
Ian Lake makes a convincing smitten-at-first-glance Joey, while Stephen Ouimette serves up a beautifully nuanced Sam.
At the centre of it all, Cara Ricketts morphs through a compelling transition from the prime and proper professor’s wife to demanding woman exceedingly skilled in using her charms to escape a picture book life of servitude and become ruler of the family roost, going “at it” one member or once-removed client at a time. Those unfamiliar with the narrative were dutifully repulsed when her false fronts were lowered and the wily sexual predator stepped calamitously into frame.
As strange or shocking as Pinter’s play appears on the surface, there were characters on the stage that bore uncanny resemblance to some of my own circle, and I felt I was not alone. JWR