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The Lover / The Collection

Huh? Huh. Mmnn.

By Harold Pinter
Shakespeare Theatre Company, Lansburgh Theatre, Washington, D.C.
Monday, October 2, 2017, K–11&13 (left stalls)
Directed by Michael Kahn

Harry sitting in chair sipping from a tea cup he holds in his right hand over a saucer in his left, he's wearing a rust-patterned robe over a shirt and tie and black pants. Behind him, Bill in tight green pull-over shirt and checkered pants pours tea in his cup; he's standing next to a bar cart with crystal and bottles on top, and a line of Chinese porcelain in a glass case behind him. A Persian rug is on the bloor, and a wood end table and magazine rack are on either side of Harry's chair.
Harry (James Koenig, sitting) and Bill (Patrick Ball) share tea in the Shakespeare Theatre Company's production of Harold Pinter's The Collection. Photo by Carol Rosegg, Shakespeare Theatre Company.

If you start feeling the urge to condemn me for not inserting spoiler alerts in this review, save your passion. I can't spoil something when I'm as befuddled as the next person (in this case, that would be my wife) watching this Shakespeare Theatre Company (STC) twin bill of Harold Pinter one-act plays, The Lover and The Collection. Even the program's director, STC Artistic Director Michael Kahn, admits that these Pinter works are problem plays.

"I saw The Collection a long time ago in New York, and I remember loving the play," Kahn writes in his program notes. "I had already read The Lover when I was in college, but I didn't understand it. Well, I've had enough relationships since then to understand it now. There are some plays you just shouldn't do until you've been out in the world. These are probably two of them." Clearly, I've not been out in the world enough.

Which is not, necessarily, meant to demean either of these plays or this production. Pinter writes thought-provoking plays, and these two fit that bill. Sometimes those provoked thoughts are disjointed and merely circle around the universal question that so often nags at humankind: Huh? I've decided my purpose with this essay is not to praise or dispraise these plays or this production (in fact, I don't have the experience or mental capacity to do either), but to herd all my provoked thoughts into some logical conclusions—my logic, of course, not anybody else's. And if you think I've spoiled any plot turns for you along the way, trust me (or if you are familiar with Pinter, trust him): the plots of both plays are spoil-proof.

I acknowledge that Pinter is a giant among 20th century playwrights—he even has a theater named after him in London—but I arrive at that conclusion on the opinion of others, not through my own four experiences with the playwright. My parents took me to see Betrayal during its debut run at the National Theatre in London while I was in college. Talk about spoiler alert: Betrayal starts at the end and works backward through time—and still the plot isn't all that clear. While I appreciated the theatrical device, I found the production excessively artificial and talkatively dull (not accurate: there's as much pausing in the conversations as talking, but the effect is the same, a visual droning to match the aural droning). Turns out this wasn't necessarily the production's fault, because I encountered the same attributes when next I encountered Pinter in the STC production of Old Times in 2011. Same goes for this current production of The Lover and The Collection. It's the script, every pause, step, expression, tone dictated by the writer, who, prior to writing plays, was an actor in Britain's provincial theaters. How contrary to William Shakespeare, who, an actor himself, provided few stage directions and gives his players a wide breadth of emotional freedom in the performing of his plays. Perhaps Pinter was exacting revenge on actors; or he was negating the power of directors. I don't know.

What I do know is that I react to his plays as intellectual curiosities rather than emotional engagements, like the Chinese porcelain collection in The Collection, lined up in a specially lit glass cabinet in the leather-dominated living room of Harry's apartment in Belgravia, an upscale London neighborhood. Ah, but out of that abstract intellectual swirl, emotion emerges, maybe in a distant plane or, more aptly, behind the glass of dispassionate perspective. And maybe you catch a glimpse of yourself in that glass. Just don't handle the porcelain, especially with greasy fingers, lest it slip from your hands (no, that's not a spoiler, that's just my attempt at a bit of allegorical wit in case I've snatched at least one of the themes behind the play's title, The Collection—I'm going all out to impress Pinter lovers here as I certainly can't look any more foolish to them).

Pinter's characters tend to have less personality than an emoticon and less passion than a stick figure. Whether he is feeling betrayed by his wife or she is seeking kinky sex to escape a staid, suburban lifestyle, the characters in Pinter's plays tend to be artificial and overly civil. That civility, though, is the subtext of what I've come to admire about his work: the role of civilized behavior as devastating weaponry. His characters employ psychological violence on the deepest scale, not by using abusive language but by creating varying shades of perspective. True power is altering, to the point of reversing, another person's own perspective. In Old Times, which Pinter wrote in 1971, the antagonists fought in the realm of memories—one person's memory even appeared to be a fatal blow to another character.

Ten years before that play, Pinter explored such psychological gamesmanship in The Collection, the more intellectually fascinating of the two plays in the STC twin bill, about two couples, Harry (Jack Koenig) and Bill (Patrick Ball), by appearances a gay couple (yes, 1961!), and husband-and-wife James (Patrick Kennedy) and Stella (Lisa Dwan). Scenic Designer Debra Booth has split the Lansburgh Theatre stage in three parts. Stage left is Harry's elegant Belgravia apartment. Stage right is James's and Stella's modern Chelsea flat, with sharp-edged sofa, glass coffee table, curving wood hi-fi, and a three-light pole lamp, each light with a different colored shade. At the back, centered between the two residences and lit only when in use (Mary Louise Geiger doing wonderful lighting design), is an old British Telecom phone box.

Linking the two couples is an account that Stella and Bill had a one-night fling in Leeds the week before: otherwise, none of them have ever met (and Stella and Bill may not have met in Leeds). But here are the only facts we can count on: that Stella and Bill share a profession (they supposedly met at a trade show), and that Bill spent one night somewhere "last week." The two, therefore, could conceivably have at least met in Leeds, conceivably being the important word here, for how each individual conceives that possibility dictates their relationship to the truth of what they hear and what they tell.

We first learn of the affair from James when he confronts Bill. James says he learned the details from his wife, Stella. Bill at first denies it (stating what looks obvious, that a sexual fling with a woman is "not in my book"). James persists with specific details of how Bill stalked and trapped Stella, and Bill finally confesses, but with some alterations in the details, painting Stella as the aggressor. Strangely (or, more to the point, civilly), James takes a liking to Bill, and they form a friendship. This prompts Harry to do some investigating of his own, talking with Stella. She has a completely different account of what happened in Leeds, from either that of James or Bill. Though armed with her sensible account of the truth tied to the accusation that James made it all up, Harry, when he confronts James in Bill's presence, presents yet a fourth account that would be far-fetched except it melds with what we've already seen of the other three characters. James wants to know why Bill confirmed the original story. "It amused me to do so," he says disinterestedly. If this sounds awfully mean of Bill, he is about to do something meaner: just as James, having apologized, is about to leave with his new reality, Bill blurts out "the truth." Though this is the fifth and final version, it comes across as the most plausible account of what happened in Leeds.

You could play detective watching all this, seeking the real truth of what happened, if anything, in Leeds, but you would be following the story's wrong thread. Rather, watch how the various iterations of the truth affect the interpersonal dynamics among the four characters. Stella in her brief opening lines exudes confidence while dealing with a sulking James. James then meets with Bill on equal terms, and as their friendship takes hold, James not only begins bullying Bill, he becomes the commanding presence in his relationship with Stella. Bill already is subject to bullying as the boy toy for the wealthy, socially connected Harry, and he develops a haughty attitude post-James encounter. Harry becomes defensive, so he visits Stella, civilly bullying her. Then it's back to his apartment, where he psychologically bullies James into submission and verbally abuses Bill, describing him in detail as "a slum boy." As their universe seems to have finally realigned, Bill suddenly spurts out "the truth." The impact is instant. Harry ends up sitting in his leather chair, staring in defeat at Bill's cat-like contentment. James, flummoxed, confronts Stella. The final moment of this play—Stella's reaction—neither confirms nor denies Bill's version, but it does confirm, as we see the other couple in the half-light on their side of the stage, that Bill is the one who has exerted his power over them all with his "truth."

By the way, there is a real cat in this production, belonging to Stella and James. The more Pinter I see, the more I believe he modeled his characters on cats: I compared a character in Old Times with a cat, too.

Kahn asserts that The Lover and The Collection are united by their themes. "Both plays explore the balance of power in relationships, the attempt to separate lies from truth, and people's insistence on clinging to their version of reality," he says in press material for the production. However, though The Lover hit the stage in 1963, two years after The Collection, it is a less mature play in the construction of its plot and thematic arc.

Max in leather jacket, brown pants, and dark brown worker's cap holds a bongo across from Sarah in tight, brown patterned dress, lots of crossed-leg showing, as they sit on the couch.
"Max" the lover (Patrick Kennedy) and Sarah (Lisa Dwan) use a bongo drum as a sex toy in the Shakespeare Theatre Company's production of Harold Pinter's The Lover at the Lansburgh Theatre. Photo by Carol Rosegg, Shakespeare Theatre Company.

And unlike The Collection, The Lover seems outdated. Kennedy and Dwan again play a married couple, Richard and Sarah (Ball appears briefly as John the milkman), this time in a trendy house near Windsor (the set combines bedroom on an upper level at the back with living room to one side and kitchen area opposite, morning and evening light and, in one scene, moonlight streaming through a window to the bedroom. Richard commutes to his accounting job in London, Sarah plays suburban housewife—she also has a lover. We learn this in the play's first line: "Is your lover coming today?" he asks her. "Mmnn," she replies. "What time?" "Three." Richard seems perfectly fine with this—even makes sure he arrives home late enough for the lover to clear the house. However, that evening he begins uncharacteristically (she says) asking questions about the lover, and then reveals he has a whore he frequents in the city.

The next day we witness Sarah's tryst with the lover, who goes by the name of "Max." Their tryst involves a bongo drum, cigarettes, and role playing, and—well, I had no idea how banging and scratching drum skin can heat a woman up so much (and I have a five-drum set at home), and such antics certainly generate a lot of laughs in the audience. But it's the role playing we need to be paying close attention to, for in that lies the issues eroding the very personalities of Richard and Sarah—if they had any real personalities to begin with. Both love affair and marriage slip into crises, and Richard and Sarah are not emotionally equipped to handle any of it. We can debate whether their marriage is a facade or the lover is a figment of imagination (his or hers), but the real matter is that no aspect of their lives is germane to their genuine selves. Both public and private personas are masks. I think.

And I admit what I just wrote might be pontifical blather, because The Lover actually comes off to me as Pinter wink-winking at suburban sexual repression of the early 1960s, snickering at bourgeoisie clods and their materialistic mores while he, with all his countercultural wisdom, bestows upon us a higher truth. Which would make him no different than Bill in The Collection.

Eric Minton
October 5, 2017

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