In the battleground of limited perspectives that makes up our existence, consensual reality tends to slide away with eel-like slipperiness. They'll mistake your shyness for aloofness and snobbery, to paraphrase Dylan. The way we see others—and the way they view us—is a labyrinth of misconceptions, faulty understandings, and incorrect assumptions.
It's daunting, and more than a little discouraging, but for Harold Pinter, it's right in his wheelhouse. All of The Caretaker takes place in a single room in a rundown London house in the late 1950s (the play premiered in 1960). When the lights come up we meet the silent Mick (Stephen Cartmell), who takes a seat on a bed, broods for a while, then, at the sound of footsteps outside, hightails it.
Why? The audience's desire for narrative clarity, and the notable absence of same, is precisely the point here. Next we meet Aston (Kris L. Nelson), a halting, sweet man in a suit. In tow is Davies (Steven Epp), a disheveled older fellow who seems as far out to sea as those watching the show. In Epp's performance, we see the stripped mental gears of a character done in by life—we hardly have to be told that he is homeless.
at the Guthrie Theater
through November 2
It seems Aston just rescued Davies from having the shit beat out of him in the cafe where Davies works (Epp soon enough makes this back story plausible, painting his drifter as infuriatingly mercurial and tedious—grandiose and obsequious in even measure). Aston talks around the subject for a time, then asks Davies to stay. Again, why? Nelson reveals his character's contours in small doses, with furtive glances and flashes of indecision. Aston could be a well-off Samaritan, for all we know. Or he might just have a thing for stinky older guys.
The fourth character here, the one who speaks to our eyes, is Anna Lawrence's trash-house set. Aston's room is filled with the sort of detritus that only several inspired trips to the junkyard could produce: an ossified maze of furniture, cans, appliances, papers, and suitcases that undermines Aston's apparent normality from the get-go. When your homeless lodger starts complaining about the decor, in other words, it's time for an interior rethink.
When the character of Mick returns, Cartmell gives us a sharpie and small-time aspirant who claims the building in which they stand is part of his real estate portfolio (we'll never know the truth, no colossal surprise). When Mick first reappears, he terrorizes Davies. The next time they meet, Davies brandishes a knife against Mick and mutual appreciation is established. After the intermission, Mick gives Davies just enough hope to consider turning brother against brother in a sort of coup de hovel.
Benjamin McGovern directs this unsettled thing by playing to its strengths: ambiguity, thwarted purpose, and the blank poetry of men who have no idea what their lives are, or where they are going. Nelson, after a time, employs a melodious voice to Aston's tales of mental-hospital incarceration (Epp visibly recoils at his end of the room in embarrassment and disgust). Cartmell, charged with depicting ostensibly the most worldly of the trio, spits out complex lists of ideas and things with a maniacal, almost surreal precision that leaves us wondering what sorts of schemes, scams, and derailed ambitions might color Mick's life when he's not onstage.
The play ends with pleading, and pretending things aren't the way they are, and a sense that all we've seen hasn't been selected for some grand purpose. Pinter offers a brief window into three flawed lives that intersect for no particular reason. Well, the question of whether searching for meaning is an outdated concept is one that has preoccupied artists (and non-artists) for a big messy pile of years now. Wily old Pinter, almost 50 years ago, got in close to the ground floor with this one. And it suitably breathes in the here and now, as a work of skill and energy that crawls inside your head and, when asked to leave, might well have other designs.