By Vicki Weisfeld
Fans of Harold Pinter should make a point of seeing The Caretaker at The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey. The production, directed by STNJ artistic director Bonnie J. Monte, opened September 23 and runs through October 9. Monte deserves considerable credit for bringing such a challenging play to the stage—and so successfully.
Like many absurdist plays, The Caretaker has its moments of commingled comedy and tragedy and a slapstick scene reminiscent of Godot or the Marx Brothers. Mick (played by Jon Barker) has set up his older brother Aston (Isaac Hickox-Young) in a derelict apartment, which Aston is supposed to be renovating, but clearly isn’t. One night Aston brings home the garrulous tramp, Davies (Paul Mullins), whom he rescued from a fight. Davies is full of complaints and always searching for an angle, trying desperately and unsuccessfully to get on the same wavelength with first one brother then the other. Each brother, separately, suggests to Davies that he become the caretaker for the building, though, he admits, he “has no experience in caretaking.” The brothers each have a job description in mind, and both include tasks Davies is unable and unwilling to perform. His sole preoccupation is getting a roof over his head and doing as little work as possible.
Aston would like to hire Davies, but wants references. Davies could be helpful when he starts on the renovations, but that won’t happen until Aston has built a shed in the yard. No work on the shed is being done. Davies wants to get across London to retrieve his papers, which he says include references, but he needs better shoes to make the trek. Yet he rejects each pair Aston offers him. Stalemate. Mick and his grandiose plans for renovating the apartment building seem equally unlikely to bear fruit. Mick sees Davies pretty clearly, recognizes his transparent pandering, and repeatedly leads him into verbal thickets he has to struggle to escape.
The three actors’ performances are impeccable. Barker is always a master at physical movement and repartee, and Mullins—whining, wheedling, looking out for number one—is simultaneously endearing and repellant. Hickox-Young doesn’t come to the fore until the second act, when Aston describes his mental hospital experience in an affecting monologue.
All three characters spin their wheels in ways both familiar and outrageous, and their flashes of humor and insight illuminate a great many truths. As Pinter himself said, “These truths challenge each other, recoil from each other, reflect each other, ignore each other, tease each other, are blind to each other.” The Caretaker lets audience members pursue their own truths, amidst the clutter of Aston’s apartment.
Production credits to Sarah Beth Hall (scenic design), Matthew E. Adelson (lighting design), Karen Graybash (sound design), Julie Foh (dialect coach) and Denise Cardarelli (production stage management).
Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey productions are hosted at Drew University in Madison, N.J. (easily reachable from NYC by train). For tickets, call the box office at 973-408-5600 or visit the Box Office online.