Cole Porter was wrong. Then again, he wasn’t thinking of Harold Pinter when he observed in “Anything Goes” that what was once considered shocking could be softened into innocuousness by the passing of a few decades. In “The Homecoming,” his enigmatic 1965 masterwork about power and desire, Pinter aimed to leave his audience unsure, unsettled, stimulated and appalled. That result is undimmed in Daniel Sullivan’s diamond-edged Broadway revival. The director’s lucid, unblinking work is matched by a riveting ensemble, their vileness inching under the skin in ways as psychologically disturbing as they are theatrically bracing.
Sullivan steers away from the trap of over-interpreting Pinter. This is a cryptic play in which every chiseled line is loaded and every sculpted silence even more so. But its capacity to mesmerize lies in its mystery. We watch the characters unleash unspeakable emotional violence upon each other, their mean-spirited, manipulative behavior rooted in histories and pathologies made all the more unnerving by being merely suggested. But even while withholding a full understanding of what drives the characters’ actions, the play confronts its audience with the uncomfortable truth that there’s a little of their base, animalistic cunning in all of us.
What we do know is that something profoundly unwholesome permeates the old North London house shared by four men, rendered here by designer Eugene Lee as a place where the walls, the carpets and the faded furniture all reek of decay and neglect.
Into that environment steps Teddy (James Frain), a philosophy professor at an American college who returns after a six-year absence with wife Ruth (Eve Best) to visit his childhood home. Bad move. “Why don’t we have a nice cuddle and kiss, eh?” says Teddy’s father Max (Ian McShane), a retired butcher. “Like the old days?” The menace, resentment and oblique hints of past sexual abuse that hang thickly in the air make it clear paternal affection is not on the menu.
No less ambiguous is the welcome extended by Teddy’s brothers, dapper Soho pimp Lenny (Raul Esparza) and doltish mouth-breather Joey (Gareth Saxe), an aspiring boxer. Only Max’s brother Sam (impeccably understated Michael McKean) seems genuinely fond of his nephew. A chauffeur pathetically gratified by the patronizing endorsements of his wealthy American clients, Sam is the only person on stage with more than a shred of humanity but in this company, that translates as crippling weakness.
With a malevolent glint in his eye and that deep growl of a voice spewing both veiled insults and vicious antagonisms, McShane’s Max is not entirely unrelated to his magnificently heartless Al Swearengen from HBO’s “Deadwood.” The fundamental difference is the aging Max’s awareness of his diminishing rule. Even as he wields his walking stick like a truncheon, his anger seems fueled by the certainty that his strength is fading. Rotten to the core, Max is a tremendous role and McShane bites into it with glistening fangs.
Ready to challenge Max on every front is smug, sneering Lenny, played by Esparza not as a physical bully but a psychological one. This approach is especially effective in Lenny’s extended monologues, in his initial cat-and-mouse game with Ruth and in his sickening boasts about brutalizing other women.
But it appears the right to rule the house and sit in the most comfortable chair might end up going to neither Max nor Lenny once Ruth clocks how best to milk the set-up to her own advantage. Refining a simple blink of her eyes or a subtle sideways shift of her head into an artful slow-motion performance piece, Best’s imperturbable outsider has a quality that all five of the men jockeying around her for power or attention lack: She’s adaptable.
The mother-whore dichotomy that dictates the male characters’ attitude to women here is at its purest in Max, who speaks of his late wife one minute in sainted terms as “the backbone of this family” and as a “slutbitch” the next. Similarly, the horrifying insults he hurls at Ruth by way of a greeting are followed later by praise: “She’s a lovely girl. A beautiful woman. And a mother too.” Sullivan plays this volatile material to perfection, as evidenced by the uneasiness of the laughter rippling through the audience.
Ruth’s intuitive understanding of those conflicting needs — of how suspicion of her sexual power feeds the men’s urge to humiliate and dominate her, but also how their lust and their sad need to be mothered makes them easy prey — allows her to remain in command, even as Frain’s spineless Teddy looks on in festering silence.
To go back to the Cole Porter song, “a glimpse of stocking” plays a key role here, when Ruth takes hold of a wayward philosophical argument about being and not-being. With supreme calm, she reclaims her position at the center of everyone’s focus through sly self-objectification. “Look at me,” she purrs. “I … move my leg. That’s all it is. But I wear … underwear … which moves with me … it … captures your attention.”
In a performance of icy-cool poise made even more arresting because it follows Best’s last Broadway appearance as Eugene O’Neill’s ungainly cow of a farm girl in “A Moon for the Misbegotten,” the scene has a sinister smoothness that makes Sharon Stone’s “Basic Instinct” leg-crossing act seem like oafish burlesque.
Regardless of the sordidness of Max and Lenny’s plan to exploit Ruth, she never loosens her control of the situation, and her willingness to take such an unlikely avenue out of a mundane life as traditional wife and mother makes her the most complex character onstage. The hypnotic play closes with a pieta tableau in which a satisfied smile spreads slowly across Best’s face, leaving little doubt about how the diseased family unit’s redistribution of power will play out.