Harold Pinter’s “The Caretaker” may be universally hailed as one of the masterworks of 20th Century theater, but nothing much happens in it. A nondescript middle-aged man named Aston saves a scruffy, shoeless old tramp named Davies from a beating and brings him home to spend the night in the junk-filled attic of a dilapidated London building. Aston’s brother Mick, who owns the building, shows up. At the end, Davies is sent packing by the two brothers.
And that’s about it. Pinter always insisted that the 1960 play meant nothing more than what it was. Directors over the years have either tried to imbue the absurdist plot with meaning, or play it for laughs. The current production of it at Hudson Theatre Works in Weehawken, directed by Frank Licato (who also co-stars as Davies), plays it down the middle. You could almost call this Pinter Lite.
For one thing, Licato has trimmed the play down from three to two acts. Funny moments occur, to be sure, especially from Tom Althouse as Mick, who plays the part like a cross between Eric Idle and Jim Carrey, with a manic energy that often suggests insanity. Oddly, Aston (Todd Hilsee) is supposed to be the crazy one, an escapee from a mental asylum where he was forced to undergo shock treatments. Hilsee, however, brings an understated seriousness to the role. Licato, for his part, perfectly nails both the swagger and pathos of Davies, a degenerate grifter and racist who nonetheless believes he deserves better.
Aston, who is still dealing with the trauma of his hospitalization, fixates on building a backyard shed out of scraps of wood, which he believes will turn his life around. He brings home piles of junk and tinkers with broken fixtures and appliances, thinking he can find worth in them. It’s not a stretch to realize that he’s really hoping to fix himself.
Mick, who drives an old van doing handyman jobs, fancies himself a real estate tycoon who will one day renovate his decaying old house and turn it into a palace of luxury. He’s hardly a lord of the manor, but he lords his ownership over his brother, and then Davies.
We never know what’s in Davies’ past, but we do know that it’s both haunting and chasing him; he cries out so loudly in his sleep that Aston can’t catch a wink in the room they share, and he’s traveling under an assumed name. Davies thinks that once he picks up his identity papers in Sidcup from a mysterious, unnamed man there, he’ll be able to turn his life around. In the meantime, he glides from situation to situation, ungrateful for the charity he receives and always looking out for himself first.
Both Aston and Mick offer Davies the job of caretaker, which explains the title; when the play was made into a film (with Donald Pleasence, Alan Bates and Robert Shaw) in 1963, it was retitled “The Guest,” which makes more sense. Neither Mick nor Aston can afford a caretaker for a crumbling building with a leaky roof, nor do they need one. It’s Davies, who becomes the guest of both men, who needs a job and a place to stay.
The triumph of this production of “The Caretaker” comes from the ability of both the actors and directors to make us care about these strange, unpleasant men. Hilsee’s Aston might seem in control of his life, but he’s clearly lonely, awkward and without direction. Althouse often makes us afraid of what Mick may do, but when he starts going on about his dreams for his career and his building, we realize that he’s really just a working-class yob in hopelessly over his head.
But it’s Licato who carries the heaviest load, evoking sympathy for a smelly, conniving layabout who’s as lazy as he is racist, and as proud as he is desperate. Davies accepts and needs the charity of the two brothers but winds up, unsuccessfully, trying to pit them against each other.
A classic reading of “The Caretaker” suggests that by agreeing to kick Davies out of the house they share, Mick and Aston will heal their wounds and bond as brothers. That doesn’t really come across with this production. Instead, we’re left with poor Davies crying, “Where will I go, what will become of me?” In 2019, with the plight of both the homeless and refugees in the news every day, that’s a powerful image, regardless of whether it’s the message that Pinter intended to send.
Because the opening of “The Caretaker” was delayed a week due to illness, this production will run through March 10 at 80 Hauxhurst Ave. in Weehawken. Visit hudsontheatreworks.brownpapertickets.com.