It’s the rare play indeed that, decades after its premiere, can still shock you. Most plays lose their bite, relying as they do on violating their era’s social mores. Society changes, people become (we like to think) more sophisticated and worldly, less emotionally vulnerable to the moral transgressions of fictional characters. It’s all the more notable then that Harold Pinter’s 1965 “The Homecoming,” receiving a straightforward and strong revival at South Coast Rep, can still make your skin crawl.
An audience still doesn’t know quite how to respond to this work, whether to laugh or to cringe or both. These are hateful characters, engaging in moments of emotional violence that long ago became the norm, in this work of cyclical family dysfunction and misogyny.
It’s so extreme, and so crisply delineated in Pinter’s trademark spare language, that it is funny even while it disturbs. Pinter is the master of the mysterious human psyche, capable of creating full-fledged sexual power struggles with a few lines of carefully crafted, purposefully understated dialogue.
This dialogue isn’t easy to deliver. It requires the actors to empty themselves of emotion, at least on the outside, to communicate serious threats and lustful desires with a clean directness. The cast here is game. W. Morgan Sheppard, as the family patriarch Max, can switch from praising his late wife as a madonna to declaring her a whore in the space of an instant. Nicholas Hormann is very effective as Teddy, the philosophy professor who escaped to America and whose motives in returning are mysterious throughout. Don Harvey plays middle brother Lenny, the best dressed but most dangerous of the lot, with a seething sleaziness.
And the production is most alive when Colette Kilroy, as Ruth, is in command of the stage, in her period poofy hairdo and clingy blue dress from costume designer Maggie Morgan. Kilroy’s got the freezing cold nonchalance and the stubborn strength down just right.
Director Martin Benson’s staging is adequate, although not at all imaginative. There are moments that feel a bit awkward physically, in a play where the emotional awkwardness is plenty.