It’s often been said that the British love nothing more than a good mystery, but that alone cannot account for the particular charge offered up by that master of the enigma, Harold Pinter. Amid a career that has run almost as long as “The Mousetrap,” Pinter has been intriguing audiences in numerous ways, as the Donmar Warehouse’s generally scintillating triple bill currently makes clear. Two of the plays, “The Collection” and “The Lover,” go on a brief tour following their Donmar run, and they are worth making a special effort to seek out. “A Kind of Alaska,” meanwhile, takes as its source the real-life mystery of one woman’s virtually suspended life, though in dramatic terms what you see is what you get — whereas the other two plays continue to tease long after you have left the theater.
Pinter wrote “A Kind of Alaska” for the National Theater in 1982, where Judi Dench won raves as the childlike Deborah, who awakens after 29 years asleep to find that, in body if not necessarily in mind, she has become an adult. (Dianne Wiest later took the part in New York.)
But while the same source material — the case studies of Dr. Oliver Sacks — has fed such wildly diverse talents as Peter Brook (“The Man Who”) and Penny Marshall (the 1990 Robin Williams-Robert De Niro film “Awakenings”), it’s difficult not to feel that Pinter is in some way less essentially mysterious working from fact than from his own imagination: for all the lengthy — some may feel unduly so — pauses of Karel Reisz’s rather reverential production, “A Kind of Alaska,” unusually for Pinter, leaves its audience one step ahead of its action.
Still, Deborah is a dream opportunity for an actress, and Penelope Wilton does well enough by a part that no doubt benefited from Dench’s febrile huskiness. On this occasion, the leading lady’s thunder is somewhat stolen by the presence of Brid Brennan as Deborah’s wide-eyed, even panicky sister Pauline , wife to Deborah’s ever-hopeful doctor, Hornby (Bill Nighy).
Though physically wrong for a woman said to have become large, the slender Brennan inhabits the role with the same unspoken authority she brought to her Tony-winning stand in “Dancing at Lughnasa.” Watching her radiance collapse into tears, one wonders who’s in worse condition —Deborah,who doesn’t realize the life she has wasted, or Pauline, all too aware that time passed cannot be retrieved.
A retrieval of sorts is at the tantalizing heart of “The Collection,” a 1961 piece that, like “The Lover” two years later, was first written for TV (and for Pinter’s then-wife Vivien Merchant). Who or what is being collected? In Joe Harmston’s staging, the answer isn’t clear, though sex would seem a possibility long before James (Douglas Hodge) pays a call on Bill (Colin McFarlane). The ostensible reason for James’ visit is some score-settling involving wife Stella’s (Lia Williams) adulterous liaison in a Leeds hotel. Upping the erotic ante is the faintly self-important presence of Bill’s lover Harry, whom Pinter plays with the same deliciously tongue-in-cheek pomposity that he lent to his star turn several years back in his own play “The Hothouse.”
Though this play spells out little beyond Stella’s presence as an early example of the unknowable Pinter woman-as-sphinx, it reasserts the gruffly funny comedian that Pinter the actor can be even as he enriches every cadence of Pinter the playwright.
It’s hard to imagine a more richly performed double-act (with McFarlane on hand briefly as a milkman suggestively offering cream) than “The Lover,” a slight caprice of a play that receives two of the year’s major performances from Hodge and, especially, an almost impossibly beautiful and willowy Williams (late of “Skylight”), costumed to match by Tom Rand.
A well-to-do couple spice up their marriage of 10 years by having husband Richard pretend to be wife Sarah’s lover until he upends their shared ruse by changing — somewhat “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”-style — the rules of the game. His action forces the question of who’s in control while exposing the fundamental precariousness of the jape, an awareness that Williams’ Sarah charts step by terrifying step. The play’s outcome is scant surprise, but the power of these two performances is.
Should Hodge and Williams be ready for an encore, how about “Miss Julie”?