We all have our own tastes. Things that we like and don’t like, and things we just don’t get. Preferences. And it turns out that my preferences do not run to modern theater – that is, most plays written after WWII. I get that writers are and were doing interesting things, up-ending the theater-goer’s view of the world, or their view of what is supposed to happen in a play. Or what is supposed to be said in a play. But perhaps being 55 years beyond the time when a play is written, perhaps I feel like I’ve seen it all before? And maybe that’s because of the work that the playwright did, but still, here we are.
And where we are is at the Shakespeare Theatre. Michael Kahn (the soon-to-retire artistic director) is directing two short plays by Harold Pinter, which originally premiered in the early 1960s, The Lover and The Collection. I knew very little about Pinter going in, and even less about the plays themselves, other than the fact that the company was auditioning (or…paw-ditioning?) cats to appear in The Collection. Pinter was English, and spent the majority of his life in London, with perhaps his best known work being “The Birthday Party” – a show I’ve heard of, but would honestly be able to tell you nothing about. So unlike many of the shows that I’ve gone in for at STC, this was a bit of a mystery.
The two pieces were each about an hour, performed on either side of an intermission. It was an odd evening to attend because while we have long known that our tickets are still in “previews” and not the official performances, we managed to have both a fire alarm (that we were told to evacuate for, and then told to ignore), and then we watched as the cat in the show FREAKED OUT at one point, and was only contained through the sheer force of will of the actress holding it. Lisa Dwan should win an award for not breaking character while the cat yowled and flailed, and visibly shed large puffs of white fur. The fact that this cat did not escape and run into the audience is a miracle.
But what about the shows, you say. Well, let’s start with The Lover, which I liked more. In the first moments of the play, we are introduced to a married English couple, and as the husband heads off to work, he asks if his wife’s lover will be visiting that afternoon. “Mmhmm” she replies – oh so casual. I won’t spoil what happens afterwards, but suffice to say that this couple has both a very conventional and also very unusual marriage. The most shocking part of it all being the knowledge that this play was televised as a 1 hour teledrama in 1963. I tried to keep that attitude in my mind while watching – what if I were one of those staid British housewives watching a nice play on the evening telly, and this is what I was presented with? How must that have blown their minds a little bit? The two actors in this play are quite spectacular, and adopt amazing physical changes and behaviors throughout the course of the piece. Watching them interact is amazing. And the ending, though ambiguous, tells us that while things are strange in their little house, they will also probably be ok.
The Collection is the play I had more trouble with. And it wasn’t just being distracted to the point of muted giggles at the sight of a cat flailing about onstage. There were parts of the story that I didn’t quite understand, and why there was conflict at all. The most controversial and shocking part of this play being the fact that it presented a gay couple living together in a time before homosexual relationships were legalized. And again – this play was later televised! The story is that a husband confronts a young man who his wife has told him she slept with. But this young man is gay, and denies the story, even denies knowing the wife. As the show goes on, things become more ambiguous – from what the husband wants, to what actually went on between the wife and young man. This ending is even more nebulous than The Lover, and is part of what made me realize that perhaps modern plays and I just don’t get along.
All of this together makes it sound like I didn’t enjoy myself. I did! The costume and sets were gorgeous, and I spent so much time drooling over the mid-century furniture like a fool, that it may have distracted from my attention to the plays. It was all beautiful and perfectly evoked the time and modernity of early 60s London. The actors were all also very good, and considering they’ve all been in various high-level British dramas before, there were no distracting accents. The acting was terrific. This was just not my cup of tea. But maybe that’s just me being regressive and traditional. If I were the kind of woman who took a lover in the afternoons…maybe I would get it.