Common Ground Theatre, a hidden gem in a nondescript building on Hillsborough Road, kicked off 2015 by housing South Stream Productions’ emotionally exhausting version of Harold Pinter’s The Caretaker. Premiering in London’s West End in 1960 and moving to Broadway in 1964, The Caretaker is Pinter’s most often produced play, despite the fact that there is not much plot to speak of; it is quite disturbing (if acted well) and leaves one with a very unsettled feeling. And that is why we go to see it and why this production was firing on all burners.
For very small independent theatre companies such as South Stream, it is just a matter of finances that, for the most part, you won’t find elaborate sets as part of the experience. This was not the case here. As soon as you entered and settled in, the play, for all intents and purposes, had already begun, even without any starting dialogue. The best description of the set is to imagine the most revolting episode of the TV show Hoarders condensed into the space of a small kitchen. Pair that with some of the most eerie ambient music accompanying this room from Hell, along with the delayed realization that one of the actors was lying on a couch occasionally groaning, and you might think that you’re continuing with the SyFy Channel’s New Year’s Twilight Zone marathon. In any case, the psychological mood was definitely set for the next 90 minutes. Sound designer Zachary Corsa, the combined talents of master carpenters Todd Houseknecht and Jeff Alguire, as well as set and lighting designer Sir Lionel Mouse contributed as much to this production as did the actors and director.
The back door of this profoundly disheveled room opens and in walks Aston (Brook North) and Davies (John Honeycutt). Aston has brought Davies to his place in order to give him a place to stay after he lost his job. Although Davies was what euphemistically used to be called a “tramp” and homeless, and you’d think he’d be grateful for this show of generosity, you immediately sense his argumentative sense of entitlement despite his situation. While Davies displays an affliction of verbal diarrhea, the well-dressed Aston barely speaks and when he does it is usually a monotone “yeah,” reminiscent of Rocky Balboa. Much moving of junk from one corner of the room to another ensues; all the while, Davies aggressively tells his story, which includes a pronounced distrust of “blacks” (which he always whispers). When some noise is heard from above, Aston says that his brother Mick (Ryan Brock) also lives here.
There is not much action (there is barely two feet of space to move around in), no “story” to speak of, but there is a sense of foreboding building and also, quite surprising, wisps of humor judiciously sprinkled about.
John Honeycutt as Davies has by far the biggest part, with the pure number of lines exponentially exceeding the other two parts. Without a convincing portrayal in this part, this play would be a yawning mess. Honeycutt was masterful in a performance straddling the border of crazy and the sanest guy in the room, all done convincingly with great passion and controlled explosiveness. Brook North as Aston must play his part as more inwardly emotive since he speaks so little. Initially I found his style a bit too forced until his famous lengthy soliloquy about two-thirds through the play. Sitting on his bed with a pale spotlight on him, he poetically describes his ordeal in a mental hospital. Just a little of who he is and why he behaves as he does became clearer.
We don’t meet Mick until about 25 minutes into the play. Ryan Brock portrays the alleged owner of this establishment as perhaps the most mentally unstable of this bizarre trio. He lashes out at Davies in a mile-a-minute speech pattern, asserts himself as an important man, and eventually offers Davies a job as caretaker of the premises. Surprisingly, especially for a three-character play, there are but a few inconsequential words exchanged between the brothers. It is as if strangers can be communicated with, but there is no need to, or interest in, talking with relatives. This might not be such an alien concept to some readers!
So somehow, this homeless man seems to be engaged in psychological war with brothers, one of whom may or may not be living there, and one — or both — who may have offered him a job, and one — or both or neither — who want him to leave. There are no answers, few questions, and only a vague idea of why we are even watching these three guys or care about any manufactured “outcome.” Plays like The Caretaker are often labeled (derisively so by many) as “Absurdist Theatre,” I suppose because there’s no “story” and some of the dialogue does not flow logically or linearly. All I could say is that I was transfixed for 90 minutes with these three men in this cluttered space. Director Jaybird O’Berski, of course along with this exemplary trio of actors, breathed life into this other level of existence and made us care. And like any well done artistic endeavor, it somehow even gets better as you think about it afterwards.
The Caretaker continues through Sunday, January 18. For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.