Harold Pinter can be challenging to the point of making Samuel Beckett seem elementary. I mention Beckett because last year’s Endgame, staged by Montana Rep Missoula, was the most recent theatrical test for local audiences—a world renowned playwright whose work leaped right over accessibility long ago and landed straight in a pool of unabashed reverence, being staged here. No matter if you didn’t really get Endgame. It’s genius and we felt privileged to see it performed well, and that’s all you needed to know. For most, any actual entertainment factor was secondary.
Pinter has a knack for putting entertainment on the back burner as well—he plays games with words the way Beckett plays with symbolism. Pinter’s plays are populated with characters who look familiar, placed in familiar situations, and who talk about familiar topics like home, love, future and family. But as soon as Pinter’s dialogue approaches any sense of rooted normalcy, it takes a U-turn right back to the absurd and abstract, and then idles there for an uncomfortable period of time. Pinter’s a challenge because you’re never quite clear what’s going on even when everything in front of you would seem to be clear. Pinter can make even the smartest theatergoer feel like an idiot.
That thick feeling is evident in spades in the dual production of Pinter’s first work, The Room (1957), and his last, Celebration (2000). Staged by the University of Montana’s Drama/Dance Department, the double-bill of one-acts is a window into everything that makes the famed British playwright so honored—he was awarded 2005’s Novel Prize for Literature—and yet so tough for some American audiences to digest. Personally, I’m a huge fan of the verbal trickery Pinter puts in his characters’ mouths, but judging from the comments of those leaving the theater—everything from “If we have a quiz on that I’m screwed” and “What the hell was that?” to “I need some time to figure all that out”—it’s an evening of “entertainment” that must be qualified.
Celebration opens the show, and it’s by far the easier play to grasp. Two couples, one of which is celebrating an anniversary, occupy a table at the most expensive restaurant in London. Next to them is another table with one couple; the man is consumed with talking about his upwardly mobile career as a banker. It sounds straightforward enough until the conversations at both tables start swirling down the wormhole, rinsed thoroughly with copious amounts of wine and enough expletives to make Sid Vicious blush. From the anniversary table we learn that the two men (Michael Butterworth and Jamie Parnell) are brothers and the two women (Rosie Ayers and Elizabeth Mangham) are sisters, and that nobody seems particularly fond of anybody or anything. Even when one increasingly drunk husband remembers the occasion and toasts his anniversary he says to his wife, “Raise your fucking glass and shut up,” which, by this point, is utterly unsurprising language. Already we’ve been introduced to stories of infidelity, violence, crime and an odd bit of lesbianism between the two sisters/wives. It’d sound ridiculous if Pinter’s dialogue wasn’t as sharp as a steak knife, cutting into and ripping apart what is, at least at the onset, your average clichéd dinnertime conversation.
The other table is turned on its head just as quickly. While the banker (Jim Sontag) goes on about his professional pursuits, his wife (Kaet Morris) starts reminiscing about her days as a secretary, getting fresh with executives behind file cabinets. They agree to refer to her as a “whore in the wind.” The only thing that interrupts their conversation is a visit from an energetic young waiter (Thomas Bruner) who goes on a ridiculous name-dropping rant—oh, and also when the wife recognizes one of the drunk husband/ brothers at the next table as one of her old file cabinet flings. The play ends with the silly waiter, still name-dropping but now to the audience. His purpose, one guesses, is to underline the sad isolation apparent in all of these characters and how they respectively try to defend themselves against it.
The Room couldn’t be more different from Celebration. Its tone is dark and desolate, set in a rickety London apartment populated by a talkative wife, Rose (Teralyn Tanner) and her silent husband Bert (Sontag). For the majority of the play Rose yammers about how comfortable the room is, how lucky they are to have the room when it’s so cold outside, and how it’s so much nicer than the damp basement room she obsessively refers to. All the while Bert ignores her, literally saying nothing until he leaves to go drive his truck. Full disclosure: I’ve seen this play twice before and I’m still not exactly sure what transpires next. It involves a nervous couple knocking on Rose’s door, the landlord delivering disturbing news about who resides in the basement room and a creepy blind guy. In fact, the whole tone of The Room is creepy. And even if what’s going on is clear as mud, once again Pinter’s overall point is hard to miss: the comfort of Rose’s room isn’t so secure.
Attending these Pinter plays felt like attending a class. This production, directed by Randy Bolton, is uncluttered and presents the lesson in near-perfect pitch, cockney accents and all. (Although, it’s curious to have the latest play performed first, contrary to chronology and the manner in which the double-bill is typically staged.) But presenting Pinter straight up doesn’t mean he’ll be entertaining to everyone. Sticking with the classroom metaphor, I can see how some would dread the quiz or doze off once the plots turn askew. But then again, at least for me, I think a compare and contrast essay on Rose and the name-dropping waiter would make for one hell of an entertaining assignment.
Harold Pinter’s The Room and Celebration continue in the Masquer Theatre in UM’s PARTV Center through Sunday, Nov. 4, at 7:30 PM. $11/$10 students.