Reprinted from yesterday's late editions.
In a wickedly humorous comedy, "Otherwise Engaged," author Simon Gray recognizes over-communication as the roughage in today's silken urbanity.
Through his central figure, Simon (a more likeable fellow than his "Butley"), Gray roams the incredible difficulties of a man who merely wants a few hours to himself.
Making his American stage bow, the screen's Tom Courtenay plays the acted-upon Simon in a splendid cast directed by Harold Pinter, who staged the London original. Its month at the National will hear repetitions of the opening night chortles and this very British comedy will find American audience for years.
Its literacy and humor aside, the pleasure here, as with any fine comedy, lies in its truth of recognition. Through addiction to the 24-hour newscasts and far too much newspaper reading. I have long felt that there should be some sort of moritorium on communication. There are, after all, some things which although felt don't need to be stated.
All Simon wants is to listen to his new four-hour recording of "Parsifal." He's publisher with a working wife temporarily absent, and their childless home has such acmes of comfort as a fully stocked bar and an elegant coffee grinder. For some reason, which eluded me, the couple allow a lodger to occupy an upstairs room and he, cloddish David, provides the first interruption. Soon there will be brother Stephens, fearful he will not advance in his educational hierarchy, a besotted friend, Jeffs, with an amusing vocabulary, and Jeff's girlf friend, hopeful that her bare bosom will tempt Simon.
Before Simon gets close to "Parsifal" again there will be reminders of the celebrated sex of the English public schools, someone's daughter who turns out really to be that someone's prey and wife Beth, who unsuccessfully confesses that she is pregnant with another man's child.
It might be said. I suppose, that Simon is too selfish to merit sympathy but not by my scale of values, the point being that Simon does indeed know or guess, everyone else's troubles and aware that he cannot change human nature, would prefer that they not use him as an animated confessional. It is high time someone has recognized this contemporary mania as the stuff of comedy, and Gray handles it with soft, caressing feathers.
Simon means that Courtenay must constantly be acted upon, must react, must respond, by repeating either statements or, perhaps, by turning statements into questions.
The result is Courtenay's portrait woven with small stitches, a slight frown, an eye-narrowing, a tone of voice that tends to rise quietly at small irritations and, with the discovery that his coffee grinder means much to him, a roar of anger.
Pinter's direction ferrets out questions, the threats of proximity, the ease of distances. And his excellent cast responds. John Christopher Jones, as the lodger, is a slobism personified and John Horton's Stephen true spite. Nicholas Coster, an early Arena Stage regular, is superbly funny and touching as tipping Jeff, a high comedy scene of true skill and clear diction. Lynn Milgrim's temptress exposes a spirit that is as black as her breasts are white and Michael Lombard's schoolboy nastiness makes the final interloper threatening. At last Carolyn Lagerfelt has a character of dimensions.
Finally one has the pleasure of following through Gray's more elusive allusions. Somehow I found it very important that the record Simon never gets to hear is of "Parsifal." Poor Parsifal would find today's interruptions as terrible a test as those Wagner conceived.