"The Caretaker" was Harold Pinter's first great London chamber piece. It established his reputation both as a peerless recorder of lower-class British speech and a playwright who depends on powerful actors to clothe his matter-of-fact dialogue in dignity.
Thanks to three such actors, James Waring's revival at the Olney Theater, which opened Tuesday night, safely avoids a Pinter that discontents.
"The Caretaker's" three characters are, in separate ways, "waitin' for the weather to break," Aston, a reticent, psychologically damaged handyman, has rescued a shabby beggar named Davies from a cafe fight. Davies sleeps in the bed of Aston's younger brother Mick, a volatile, ambitious young man in "the building trade." Davies badgers Aston, but cowers in the presence of Mick. As Davies grows impatient with Aston, he tries to turn Aston against his brother. He fails.
Not the stuff of grand drama or light comedy, one would think, but Pinter brushes against both. Some of the laughs over here flow naturally from the American delight in British phrasing - Mick's "Don't get perky" to Davies gets a roar. But Davies provokes most of the rest with his grammatical peculiarities and ill-founded bluster.
Davies is a prejudiced egotist, a perennial loser who nonetheless cedes the inferiority of his judgments only under the threat of violence. Then he whimpers. Even when his confidence grows before Mick, his antics are those of a frightened puppy playing at fierceness. When Mick tires of those antics, and of his plan to install Davies as caretaker of the decrepit boarding house, the laughter evaporates. Davies' predictable snatching of a defeat from a pathetic minor victory - the promise of a job as caretaker - swings the audience around.
After 19 years, some of Pinter's dialogue wearily calls attention to itself and the theatrical mood of the time. A bucket hangs from the ceiling of the brother's room to catch the leaking rainwater. "What do you do when the bucket's full?" asks Davies. "Empty it," answers Aston after a heavy philosophical pause. One expects the British brand of existentialism to come drop by drop, but the drops add up to very little these days. What remains strong in "The Caretaker" is the stench of human failure.
Stanley Anderson as Aston could, if called upon, singlehandedly keep the production anchored to the bleak literalness of a few damaged human beings. Looking like Clint Eastwood might after 30 more "Dirty Harry" movies, he forcefully communicates the anguish and vulnerability of a haggard workman trying not to backslide from slow-wittedness into dim-wittedness.
Thomas Toner's Davies negotiates all the twists of the part, sliding from whiner to wheedler to despondent reject without a gesture or intonation falling out of place. As Mick, David Snell began a bit mechanically, his outbursts seemingly programmed rather than rehearsed. As the evening moved on, however, Mick's sharp jumps between tongue-in-cheek commentary and angry invective grew less calculated and more credible.
The Olney production staff has constructed a beautiful, cunning set. The apartment, with its spotty gray walls, evokes a sense of being surrounded by sidewalk concrete, emphasizing the closeness of its inhabitants in all respects to the life of the street. A host of other devices work neatly to reinforce the bare reality of their lives. In providing them, this production of "The Caretaker" takes us as close to the hidden histories of Pinter's characters as we are likely to get.