December 19, 2007

Why "The Homecoming" Doesn't Hit Home

Harold Pinter's The Homecoming created a sensation when it opened at the Music Box Theatre in January of 1967, just as it had done during its earlier run in London. People took sides with the kind of passion displayed today only by fans at a World Cup final. In his opening night review, the New York Times critic Walter Kerr declared the play too slight and too slow. But a few weeks later, his colleague Clive Barnes proclaimed it "the most important English play since the war." The New Yorker wasn't impressed. Newsweek, however, thought it redefined drama. Readers heatedly debated the play in letters columns for weeks. Five months later, Tony voters chose it as the year's Best Play and gave it three other awards as well.

I know all of this because I was so befuddled about the meaning of The Homecoming after seeing the new production that opened on Sunday at the Cort Theatre that I started looking things up as soon as I got home. "What you need," said my husband K, who had decided to see it with me because he had never seen a Pinter play and thought he should see one, "is a kind of Cliff Notes." I checked the Cliff Notes website and they didn't have anything but I did find something like it on and was delighted to discover that I could download the PDF to my computer immediately (click here if you want to do the same) although I can't honestly say it helped.

I can say that it's unlikely the new production of The Homecoming will create the kind of commotion it did 40 years ago, even though it is nicely
directed by Dan Sullivan and performed by a superb cast that includes Raúl Esparza, Michael McKean, Ian McShane and Eve Best. Back then it arrived after the assassination of John F. Kennedy and in the midst of the burgeoning women’s movement but before the events of 1968 that many people consider the heart of that paradigm-changing period we call The Sixties and the play seemed fittingly emblematic of those disjointed times. But now it is an established classic, considered by many to be Pinter's masterpiece. And Pinter himself has become a revered theater elder who has won the Nobel Prize and been knighted by the Queen.

On its most basic level, The Homecoming tells the story of a philosophy professor, who, after living in the U.S. for nine years, returns with his wife to his native England to visit the all-male household of his widowed father, two brothers and the uncle who lives with them. They are—no surprise—a dysfunctional family (are there any other kind in dramas?) and so the play is also about the sexual dynamics, power plays and betrayals among them. What Pinter brings to all of this is that indefinable feeling of creepy unease that even people who haven't seen his plays refer to as Pinteresque.

Which raises the question, at least for me, of what I would have thought if I'd seen the same show but the playwright had been listed as some other name. Because, dear reader, as much as I wanted to, I couldn't figure out what the play was supposed to be telling me (is it a proto-feminist work? or just the familiar old male fantasy?). Admittedly trying to discern that kept me riveted. And I was equally fascinated by how Best, who played Josie in A Moon for the Misbegotten last season, and Esparza, who most recently played Bobby in Company, transformed themselves into such completely different characters. And, of course, I came home and started reading (click here to read a terrific piece that the New Yorker critic John Lahr wrote about how The Homecoming changed his life) and found out lots of interesting things. But the play still hasn't hit home for me. Maybe that's because there’s really no way to turn the clock back and experience a breakthrough work in the same way that people did when it first broke through. Or maybe, it's just me.


Anonymous said...

I thought John Lahr's piece was very good too. For myself, I don't need a Play to "Mean" anything. That is why I like Pinter. It can "mean" whatever you like.

Aaron Riccio said...

It's not just you. And while I appreciate the way Pinter says that a play shouldn't be tidy (like a crossword), it should affect its audience, and I feel NOTHING watching The Homecoming. It spends two hours making a point about "the perception of reality" (as Lahr puts it) that frankly, I was more entertained into believing while watching "The Farnsworth Invention."

jan@broadwayandme said...

Thomas and Aaron, I'm sorry that holiday chores kept me from responding sooner to your comments. Thanks so much for the smart observations. One of the many things I love about theater is that the same show can evoke such different responses in people. I hope you'll both write again.