Fathers and Sons

Even if they’ve never read Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, a lot of people have at least heard some variant of the opening sentence: “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” The characters in Harold Pinter’s 1965 play The Homecoming are unhappy in the most vicious ways possible. “They’re very warm people, really,” the eldest son Teddy says to his wife before she meets his father and brothers. “They’re my family. They’re not ogres.” It’s a funny line because by the time he says it we’ve already met his family and know perfect well that’s not true.

Jack Willis, René Augesen, Adam O’Byrne and Andrew Polk in The Homecoming. Photo by Kevin Berne.

American Conservatory Theater has done Pinter plays several times before, starting with founder Bill Ball’s 1984 production of Old Times, a play that current artistic director Carey Perloff put her own spin on at ACT in 1998. She followed that up with a double bill of Celebration and The Room in 2001 and now this production, which is one of the strongest stagings I’ve seen from Perloff in some time. Daniel Ostling’s set takes full advantage of the ACT stage’s generous dimensions to create an overlarge, dingy living room with a very tall straight staircase to what could be the third floor.

The play opens with retired butcher Max rambling on about his wild youth while his contemptuous, middle-aged son Lenny tries to ignore him, reading his racing paper. The two spit venom at each other until interrupted by the entrance of Max’s younger brother Sam, a kindly, chatty chauffeur. Lenny exchanges pleasantries with Uncle Sam as if partly to get his father’s goat, which it does. “I’m here too, you know,” he fumes. Although Max is hard on his sons, the mere presence of his brother seems to fill him with disgust, which he vents on Sam with relish. Kenneth Welsh’s long-suffering Sam does his best to shrug off the abuse his brother heaps on him, rising to the bait only when his driving or professionalism is called into question, because he takes pride in his work.

Jack Willis’s garrulous Max is a real piece of work, sometimes chummy and rattling on about his dear departed wife, but then he’ll turn on a dime with vicious streams of epithets. Youngest son Joey is training to be a boxer—how seriously don’t know—and as played by Adam O’Byrne he seems like a fairly simple, easygoing guy, at least until we get to know him better.

Andrew Polk’s leering Lenny (pronounced like “Lonnie” with the English accents) is the hardest character to get a read on, because his aggressiveness comes out in such childish bursts. He talks about terrible things he’s done to women with relish but is easily undone when someone turns the tables on him, and he clams up completely when Teddy comes home, regarding him with sullen, wary deference. He comes off as not just sociopathic but also slightly autistic.

Into this den of abuse returns the prodigal son, along with the wife the family didn’t even know he had. A philosophy professor, Teddy left north London, where the play is based, six years ago to move to the States, and he and his wife Ruth married just before he left. His family apparently was not invited, which is perfectly understandable. Less understandable is why he thinks that coming in for a nice visit with his wife now would be a good idea.  Anthony Fusco gives Teddy an unflappable, mild-mannered air that’s more perplexing the more the play goes on. Ruth is played by ACT’s usual leading lady René Augesen, who just finished playing Fusco’s wife in Clybourne Park and also costarred with him in Perloff’s last Pinter production, and it’s a fascinating portrayal, from her initial apparent timidity to the way she increasingly uses her sexuality as a weapon without displaying any particularly sexy behavior. Just the reminder that she is potentially a sexual being at all is enough to send the menfolk into a lather.

To say the homecoming doesn’t go well is of course an understatement, but even so it’s at times jaw-dropping just how badly it goes, veering from credible cruelty into straight-out absurdity. But even when the bad behavior goes so far off the rails that it’s impossible to believe that anyone would act this way—or at least act so nonchalant about acting this way—the performances are strong enough to keep you invested in the story, so that even the conspicuous absence of a key character during a late scene becomes very, very worrisome.  It’s a masterpiece of discomfort.

It’s also a nasty business. The way the men view women is particularly disturbing. Max rhapsodizes about his late sainted wife but might as easily refer to her as a bitch or a whore if the mood strikes him. Everyone seems to think that if there’s a woman in the house she must be a tart, and ultimately I don’t think they really think there’s a difference between a woman and a tart to begin with.

It’s all men in the family: Max had all boys, so did his parents, and Ruth and Teddy have three boys back home, and the culture of the house is like a boys’ club that’s existed so long in the absence of women that they don’t really know what to do with one. They’re like debauched Lost Boys any Wendy should steer well clear of. But Ruth isn’t a Wendy; she’s unhappy with her life in such a general way that all bets are off as to what she might do. That more than anything makes her seem right at home.

The Homecoming
Through March 27
American Conservatory Theater
415 Geary St.
San Francisco, CA

Show #24 of 2011, attended March 13.

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