Violence and comedy shouldn't go hand in hand, but the fact that they so frequently do in the English-speaking world is right there embedded in our language. "He killed out there," we say of the conquering stand-up. "I'm dying of laughter. She's a real riot."
Jennifer Tarver's pitch-perfect production of Harold Pinter's The Homecoming – the play for which the phrase "comedy of menace" was coined – is a real riot. Guts threaten to bust at every moment, although it's not always clear if that's from laughter or a punch to the stomach.
Set in North London, as riots so often are, this 1965 play concerns the return from America of professor Teddy (Mike Shara), with wife Ruth (Cara Ricketts) in tow, back to visit his working-class family after a six-year absence.
Whether or not Teddy is actually a doctor of philosophy, however, or Ruth is the mother of three children is open to debate, as are most of the facts put forth by The Homecoming's cast of cruel characters. "My lips move," Ruth says at one point, essentially summing up of how language works in the play. "Perhaps the fact that they move is more significant … than the words which come through them."
The old homestead is ostensibly headed by Max (Tony winner Brian Dennehy), a butcher who in retirement has taken to carving up his family for kicks. The decline of his rule (and his mind) is quickly clear in the opening scene where his psychotically sarcastic son of unsavoury occupation, Lenny (Aaron Krohn), sits ignoring his taunts, reading the paper with hostile indifference.
From this first juicy scene between Dennehy's amused but secretly scared Max and Krohn's sensational, staccato Lenny, it's clear Tarver's production is going to sizzle. Krohn – a Broadway veteran of Tom Stoppard's plays with a pockmarked face made for Pinter – is particularly fantastic, whipping out each line like a flick knife and jabbing it at his interlocutors.
The other men in this Pinter pack are impressive as well: Stephen Ouimette is sympathetic as Max's long-suffering brother Sam, the target of abuse simply for taking pride in his work and exhibiting a shred of decency from time to time. Ian Lake, meanwhile, gets every possible laugh as empty-headed Joey, an aspiring boxer who seems to absorb the constant punches from his family without any effect. ("That's your only trouble as a boxer," Max says, in one of his unending criticisms. "You don't know how to defend yourself, and you don't know how to attack.")
Only Shara occasionally becomes too goofy as Teddy – and he's not helped by a ridiculous turtleneck that swallows him up in the second half. But he and designer Leslie Frankish get most every thing else right.
Pinter's plays are fill-in-the-blanks affairs, and in The Homecoming, Ruth is the biggest blank of them all, with "mother" pencilled in, then erased and replaced with "whore," back and forth. She becomes an object of a tug-of-war between Teddy and his family, even as she slowly asserts her own power in the household. She's not so much passive-aggressive as aggressively passive in her battles with Lenny – and her character always risks turning into a symbol (and a misogynist one at that).
While the role remains politically problematic, Ricketts delivers an enigmatic and magnetic performance, cool as a cucumber and sexy as a switchblade. (When she crosses and uncrosses her legs, she puts Sharon Stone to shame.) But there's also something about her performance that suggests a sad Stepford Wife who's about to go into cybernetic revolt against her male creators.
Tarver's production is oh-so-unsettling, bizarre and filled with shockingly funny moments. It preserves the mysteries of a play that has been theorized to death, while never coming across as vague or pretentious. It's a puzzle, but one that audiences will delight in trying to put together.
- Written by Harold Pinter
- Directed by Jennifer Tarver
- Starring Brian Dennehy, Stephen Ouimette, Cara Ricketts
- At the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Stratford, ON