The three characters in Harold Pinter’s “The Caretaker” — currently being presented by the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey at Drew University in Madison — don’t get much of anything done.
Aston, who lives in a cluttered room of a squalid house in West London, keeps on talking about building a shed out back, saying he can’t do anything else before that is accomplished. He also fiddles with a plug he’s repairing, endlessly.
His brother Mick, who owns the house, has intricately detailed dreams of turning the room into a luxury penthouse (“Deep azure-blue carpet, unglazed blue and white curtains, a bedspread with a pattern of small blue roses on a white ground …”) but doesn’t take even the first step toward making any changes.
Davies, a homeless man whom Aston invites to stay with him, keeps saying he can’t do anything until he picks up his papers in the city of Sidcup, and can’t go to Sidcup until he gets a proper pair of shoes. And even though his own shoes are in tatters, he finds fault with various pairs that Aston offers him. He can’t be expected to wear black shoes with brown laces, now, can he?
Directed by Shakespeare Theatre artistic director Bonnie J. Monte and benefiting from a spectacularly unkempt set design by Sarah Beth Hall, actors Isaac Hickox-Young, Jon Barker and Paul Mullins — as Aston, Mick and Davies, respectively — brings these rather pathetic characters to vivid life in this production. Aston is earnest but lost. Mick is slick and manipulative on the surface but underneath, a seething pit of neuroses. Davies is cagey and mysterious, and acts awfully entitled even though he only has a place to live due to the brothers’ generosity.
This 1960 work is regarded as a landmark of 20th century theater, and also represented Pinter’s first major success. But 62 years later, its brutal ugliness and absurdist humor carries less of a jolt, the aimlessness of its plot (or, perhaps you might say, lack of a plot) seems like a major problem, and I can’t really see how anyone would consider it a masterpiece.
That said, there are certainly some memorable moments here. A long monologue by Aston — in which he tells Davies how he underwent shock therapy, unwillingly, when he was younger — was heartbreaking and absolutely mesmerizing. And a scene in which the three men fight over a large leather bag containing Davies’ possessions, continually grabbing it from each other, was gracefully choreographed and executed.
The humor was often subtle and deadpan, as when Davies stared up at the ceiling, where the brothers had hung a bucket to catch the water from the leaky roof.
“What do you when that bucket’s full?” he asked.
“Empty it,” said Aston.
The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey presents “The Caretaker” at The F.M. Kirby Shakespeatre Theatre at Drew University in Madison through Oct. 9. Visit shakespearenj.org.
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