Decay is in the air at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Harvey Theater, which, with its ruinous look, is a perfectly imperfect home for Harold Pinter’s "The Caretaker." Below the theater’s weathered proscenium arch sits a disheveled and overstuffed garret, rendered masterfully by set designer Eileen Diss with bleak and confounding resonances.
No individual item in the room is all that odd but, taken together, the unconnected gas stove, the smiling Buddha on top of it, the human-high pile of newspapers, the bucket hanging from a dingy skylight, and the rest of the space’s detritus clues the audience in quickly to the fact that something is decidedly off.
First published and performed in 1960, "The Caretaker" established a couple of reputations: its author’s, and, then, in 1964, that of Liverpool’s Everyman Theatre, which kicked off its existence with a legendary production of the play. Almost a half century later, and Everyman has returned to its auspicious roots, co-producing a U.S. touring revival of "The Caretaker," now making its BAM stop.
With this early work that established many of the writing tropes for which he would become famous, if not notorious, Pinter managed to upend the theatrical world, accomplishing this feat despite the fact that nobody could completely grasp what he was saying.
As is common with Pinter, the play never declares itself to be about anything in particular, which opens up its enigmatic text to varied interpretations. It begins with an apparent act of kindness, when Aston (Alan Cox), a strangely affectless West Londoner, offers to share his dilapidated room with Davies (Jonathan Pryce), a loquacious, elderly derelict.
Davies’ words reveal a troubled mind, belonging to a fearful wretch who punctuates his paranoia with haughty rants against foreigners. But there are also times when a saner self peeks through the surface, suggesting that Davies once lived a respectable life and might be capable of doing so again.
Pinter, however, is not a playwright who traffics in easy hope or obvious story lines. And director Christopher Morahan is faithful to this fractured, uncompromising vision, mounting a production that will satisfy Pinter purists while also reminding them that everything is not gloom and doom in "The Caretaker."
Beneath the menacing glares and inklings of impending violence, there is a vaudevillian sense of humor, one that some directors have been willing to sacrifice or tone down for clarity’s sake. Smartly, Morahan and his exceptional cast realize that when it comes to staging Pinter, the more ambivalence the better.
As Davies, whose Welsh surname is even up for debate, Pryce layers on the contradictions. Dressed in soiled rags, his character occasionally expresses himself as if he were a grander person whose lowly station is merely a punishment for some unwitnessed transgression.
Given the vagueness of Pinter’s dialogue, Pryce is clever to leave open the possibility that Davies could be a fallen aristocrat or at least someone with a back-story more complicated than his outward appearance. But Pryce also never forgets that Davies may only be what he seems to be: a manipulative and dangerous lout.
Without any warning or explanation, Davies’ personality switches frequently from amiable to ominous. When, for example, Aston hands him a house key, so he can go and come as he pleases, this act of faith brightens Davies’ face noticeably; though once Aston himself leaves the apartment, Davies’ primal instincts take over and he begins rifling through his benefactor’s belongings, presumably looking for something to steal.
Eventually, the impression grows that "The Caretaker" will have both a victim and a victimizer, but these roles are up for grabs, especially when a third character, Mick (Alex Hassell), becomes a part of the action. He is Aston’s younger brother and, effectively, his landlord too. Angry and ambitious, his leather-jacketed presence casts a shadow over the entire play, as he alternates between treating Davies like a confidant and an adversary.
What the brothers want from Davies remains unclear throughout the play. Each man’s behavior toward him is marked by generosity, malevolence, and indifference. But other than tormenting Davies with the promise of security, as represented by a job and a roof over his head, their end game is, at best, mysterious.
Conversely, even though Davies is given to non-sequiturs and outrageous ramblings, in terms of motivations, he is the play’s most understandable figure. Having been reduced to a feral existence, he simply wants to stay inside, where, if nothing else, he has a better chance of surviving.
To accomplish this sadly meager desire, Davies cunningly tries to pit the brothers against each other. Thinking he has discovered a sore point between the materialistic Mick and the dreamily passive Aston, he first tries to ingratiate himself with one and, when that fails, turns to the other. What tragically escapes Davies is that he will always be the odd man out. It is really the only certainty the play provides.
"The Caretaker" runs through June 17 at BAM’s Harvey Theater, 651 Fulton Street in Brooklyn. For info or tickets, call 718-636-4100 or visit BAM’s website.