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Hoping for Double Homicide at The Curran Theatre

March 29, 2012

"We're toughing it out," the young woman in the gold lamé dress said to my friend and I during intermission yesterday evening at the opening night of Harold Pinter's The Caretaker at The Curran Theatre in San Francisco. "We're waiting for the double homicide."

The first half of director Christopher Morahan's subtle production of Pinter's classic starring Jonathan Pryce as a craggy opportunistic down-and-outer with a shady past, seemed to leave Bay Area audiences feeling non-plussed. I noticed lots of shrugging shoulders and furrowed brows. Some people didn't return for the second half.

So what's going on here?

The Bay Area's theatre-going audience is quite sophisticated. And there's a lot of incisive, thoughtful and visually arresting work being done on our stages.

But Pinter doesn't get a ton of airplay out here. Perhaps yesterday evening's reactions are the natural response of an opening night audience drawn by a big-name actor. Weaned on action-packed entertainment product that speaks to them directly, maybe they struggle with Pinter's slow-boiling, subtext-centric dramaturgy? The slovenly-drab appearance of the single, garret-room set and the old-fashioned, post-war costumes may be apt to wear people out as much as parsing Pryce's hard-to-pin-down, semi-Welsh, semi-Brummie accent.

There's also the problem of seeing a production more than two years after it was conceived. The show was created at the Everyman Theatre in Liverpool in 2009, and it's quite possible that the acting and mise-en-scene are starting to wear a little thin at the elbows. This is often an issue for touring productions that have runs out here on the west coast. By the time they reach us, the actors are getting tired and aspects of the staging that were once sharp have sometimes become a bit baggy.

I didn't see the show in the UK so it's hard for me to say. Michael Billington's review in The Guardian from when the production first came out provides some clues to its quality.

I dunno. I felt quite involved in the moody-taut world unfolding before my eyes on stage. But it's probably true that Pinter's world is difficult for many audience members to digest. Still, kudos to the Shorenstein Hays Nederlander company, that bastion of crowd-pleasing musicals, for giving us something chewy to experience on the commercial theatre stage.

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