Some 30 years after its premiere, Harold Pinter’s “The Homecoming” still transfixes with its startling and strange picture of sexual and familial brutalities. The Matrix Theatre Company consolidates its reputation as one of the town’s most reliable purveyors of revivals with a production marked by a host of sharp performances and a decided emphasis on the play’s considerable humor.
Much of that grim humor derives from the seeming irreality of its central events: Eldest son Teddy brings his wife, Ruth, home to visit the family: his father, Max, an ex-butcher; brothers Joey, an aspiring boxer, and Eddie, a pimp; and Uncle Sam, a chauffeur.
The family welcomes Teddy home by making a casual communal assault on his wife; Joey seduces her while the family looks on; Max proposes keeping her as a sort of family wife; and Lenny makes the proposition feasible by planning to set her up as a prostitute. Most strangely, Ruth herself is a coolly pragmatic participant:”It might prove a workable arrangement,” she says placidly.
Beneath the surface preposterousness of the events is a deeper, darker logic. What’s born and bred in this family home is a messy mixture of love for and hatred of women (Max eulogizes his late wife in one breath and calls her a “slutbitch” in the next). In a society dominated by men, the play seems to say, women’s power and their powerlessness are equally functions of their sexual attractiveness to men.
It’s women’s sexual appeal that gives them power, and their power that inspires hatred (an idea that resonates deeply this year, after the “trial of the century” brought abuse of women into the spotlight). Victimizing Ruth is also the most ruthless way for his family to demean Teddy, the “doctor of philosophy” who has made good in America.
As Max, Philip Baker Hall gives a performance of magnetic ugliness. Snarling from the get-go, squirming with bile in his armchair, Hall is the picture of a family tyrant. It’s an accomplished turn, but a little vigorous for the traditional Pinter idiom. His nastiness is always funny, but it doesn’t have the modulated menace that Pinter so expertly defines.
That’s captured perfectly by Gregory Itzin as Lenny; his languid malignance makes his interaction with Lynnda Ferguson’s Ruth the most haunting of exchanges in the play. Ferguson uses her glacial beauty to great effect; Ruth is more a conceit than a character — she stands in for men’s vision of women as goddesses , mothers or whores. Ferguson is properly mysterious, posing Barbie doll-like with a cryptic gaze; she makes the conceit captivating.
Granville Van Dusen as Teddy and Sebastian Roche as Joey give smart comic turns, and Howard Honig as the hapless Sam is pathetically amusing. The Matrix company double-casts its productions, and the cast changes nightly. That may be why the production, polished as it is, doesn’t cut as deeply as it might; director Andrew J. Robinson has added some amusing comic fillips to the scenes, but the performances don’t always seem to mix smoothly.
They are all fine, but somehow not of a piece (indeed, the English accents range rather widely up and down the social scale, with only Roche consistently nailing the working-class sound). The atmosphere, so key to the mysterious spell Pinter can cast, suffers a little.
But with the aid of Neil Peter Jampolis’ finely detailed set — a monochrome gray living room whose only spot of color is a pillow on Max’s chair embroidered with a sentimental picture of three kittens — and Alan Armstrong’s late-’60s costumes, the play still mesmerizes.