Perhaps only Harold Pinter could enthrall $100-a-ticket patrons for two-and-a-half hours watching a depressive, a manic, and a psychotic homeless man interact in a shabby West London flat, but that’s what’s happening at BAM’s Harvey Theater through June 17. Boulevard comedy “The Caretaker” ain’t, though it provokes rueful laughter in abundance.
This is an exquisitely mounted and performed production of Pinter’s breakthrough 1960 play that is helmed by Christopher Morahan, whose own directing goes back to that revolutionary decade and includes work for the Royal Shakespeare Company and the Royal Court Theatre and a stint as associate director of the National Theatre under Sir Peter Hall.
Jonathan Pryce has been perfecting the role of the homeless Davies since 2009, when this version was created by Theatre Royal Bath Productions/ Liverpool Everyman and Playhouse. For his tour of the colonies –– Australia and America –– this year and his debut at BAM, Pryce is joined by Alan Cox as the laconic Aston, who invites Davies to share his room, and Alex Hassell as Aston’s tempestuous brother Mick, who owns the flat and pops in, out, and off.
I’m generally not crazy about plays about crazy people. Willy Loman would have been more compelling to me as an average middle class striver beaten down by the system than he is as a guy who hears voices and pathologically treats those around him like shit. Arthur Miller dresses up “Death of a Salesman” with sentiment and Big Themes.
A little over a decade later, Pinter achieved commercial success with “Caretaker”’s clear-eyed stage rendering of Davies and Aston, who have been defeated before the play begins, and young Mick, who is functioning but running on fumes of delusion. Mick, in a sexy scary turn by Hassell reminiscent of the young Rufus Sewell, also adds more than a touch of Pinterian menace that injects drama even — and perhaps especially — to the scenes he is not in. His recitation of how he’d like to fix up the place is a tour de force.
By not compromising this story of broken people with any uplift or Larger Meaning, Pinter is more successful in making us squirm over the ways these characters and their predicaments are reflected in our own lives. It was called Theatre of the Absurd when it came out, but the absurdity it makes us think about is in ourselves, not the play.
The achievement of Morahan and his players is in making these out-there characters real, not “theatrical” in the pejorative sense. Pryce’s ability to stay inside the skin of mad and maddening Davies in his seemingly hopeless quest to survive with some dignity is a wonder.
Cox, memorable as the rejected suitor in the film of “Mrs. Dalloway,” takes stillness and silence to a whole new level. But when he describes at length his defining encounter with the medical establishment as a boy, we’re riveted.
A caveat. The show worked better from the fifth row where there were unoccupied seats my eagle-eyed friend Jed and I were able to move to after intermission than from the 11th. Pryce’s uncompromising lower class accent is more intelligible when you’re almost in the room with him. The theater skills of all hands, however, read right to the back of the house.
THE CARETAKER | BAM’s Harvey Theater | 651 Fulton St. at Ashland Pl. | Through Jun. 17 | Tue.-Sat. at 7:30 p.m. | Sat. at 2 p.m.; Sun. at 3 p.m. | $25 - $100 | bam.org or 718-636-4100