The Gate Theater’s new production of Harold Pinter’s “The Homecoming,” one of the centerpieces of the Lincoln Center Festival’s celebration of the playwright’s work, is a bit like a feral cat that’s been thoroughly tamed. You approach it expecting a hiss and maybe a scratch or two, but the creature just sits there purring happily, ready to be petted.
Yes, the family of men who prowl Eileen Diss’ cozy-looking North London parlor still treat each other with varying degrees of scorn, resentment and contempt. When estranged son Teddy (Nick Dunning) comes home to visit with his wife, Ruth (Lia Williams), in tow, the macabre games of sexual seduction and emotional domination play out as expected.
But while Robin Lefevre’s production is consistently funny, it’s also oddly toothless. It’s as if the chilling shadows in this potentially deeply disturbing play have been dispelled by Mick Hughes’ warm lighting.
This may be, in part, due to evolutions in entertainment that have taken place over the years since the play first appeared in 1964. Once upon a time, the vicious insults that patriarch Max spews at his sons and brother and the clipped, casual bile they ladle out in return must have made for shocking listening. Now insult comedy and its descendant, gross-out comedy, are bona fide genres (it’s safe to say that without “The Homecoming,” “Married … With Children” would not have been possible).
Thus, while Lefevre’s staging — which isn’t above the occasional double take or laugh-getting stage equivalent of a reaction shot — earns plenty of yuks, it’s the laughter of recognition, not of shock or horror. And Lefevre’s production doesn’t tap into the play’s still potent ability to unsettle and disturb.
Ian Holm’s Max, for example, is fiendishly funny and full of feisty anger, but there’s something a bit cuddly about him, too. The desperate neediness beneath the vicious exterior should hit us like an electric current in the play’s final moments, but it’s actually there to be discovered throughout the evening.
The psychological cut-and-thrust between Max and his coolly venomous son, Lenny — played by Holm in the original production — seems an idle game rather than an expression of bone-deep feeling of resentment and hate. (Intimations of childhood sexual abuse in the play are rather remarkable for their time.) Ian Hart’s buzz cut and adorably prominent ears only add to the teddy-bearishness of his Lenny.
The pathologies that Pinter so obliquely revealed in the play are still pertinent and present today. Men’s fear and mistrust of women’s sexual power, and the resulting impulse to subjugate them through sexual humiliation and violence, is certainly still a provocative topic. And the Madonna-whore dichotomy still has a place in the cultural landscape.
But the play’s inner meanings don’t seep through its peculiar comic surface in the Gate production, perhaps because the performances don’t seem firmly grounded in any deep psychological truth. Most of them, particularly Holm’s Max and Lia Williams’ mesmerizingly poised Ruth, have a natural theatrical bravura. (The vision of Williams, coolly sheathed in costume designer Dany Everett’s form-fitting ice-blue dress, one high-heeled leg curled around the other, is certainly an unforgettable one.) But taken together they fall short of the kind of subtle intensity that can make mesmerizing emotional logic of Pinter’s resolutely illogical play.