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The Hothouse Is a Sharp and Funny Shock to the System

Sara Marsh, Mark Benninghofen

Sara Marsh, Mark Benninghofen

Harold Pinter's The Hothouse is a dark, brutal, and often very funny exercise in faceless oppression. Think Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy crossed with The Office.

The action takes place on Christmas Day in a nameless British institution, circa the 1960s, where the objective is vague. Is it a mental institution, or a place where the government can extract secrets?

The Savile Row-wearing civil servants don't offer much clarity. Leader Roote is a scattered and sloshed retired colonel who rules with an ineffective fist. Gibbs, his second-in-command, can barely hide his contempt while openly planning some kind of institutional coup.

The Hothouse is short on plot; Pinter is more interested in the absurdities of the ruling class. The scenes play like connected comedy sketches -- at one point Roote uses a machete to cut a Christmas cake -- and it all makes you wonder if these men are truly in charge, or just a bunch of inmates playing dress-up.

Pinter wrote the play early on in his career, in 1958, leaving it to gather dust on his desk for two decades. In the meantime, he rode to fame with plays and screen work (including The French Lieutenant's Woman) that specialized in people being nasty to each other.

Yet here, Pinter lays his cards on the table. On one level, that's good. It is easier to follow the story and for Pinter to get at his message: Authority crushes us beneath its weight, but also corrupts those in charge. At another level, not knowing all the answers often intensifies the unease.

An older Pinter would have never written the last scene, where the consequences of the Christmas Day activities are explained. Leaving the fates of the characters to the imagination of the audience would have been far more frightening than wrapping it in a bow (bloody as it may be) at the end.

Despite that caveat, The Hothouse is very funny. It starts with Robert Dorfman as Roote, whose rubbery face and expressive eyebrows rule the day as the sometimes clueless, sometimes vicious leader.

Mark Benninghofen's Gibbs offers contrast to Dorfman's bluster. Gibbs is as sharp and pressed as his suit, but the actor lets us see the barely controlled rage and ambition burning inside.

The actors are aided by the performance space. The atrium at the Artspace Grain Belt Bottling House is a vast, echoing chamber that perfectly reflects the setting. But this makes it impossible to hear the dialogue without some assistance. So the actors are miked, with the audience listening in on headphones, making it feel as if the action is taking place right next to you in your living room.

IF YOU GO:

The Hothouse
Through January 4, 2015
Grain Belt Bottling House
79 13th Ave. NE, Minneapolis
$15-$25
For tickets and more information, call 612-401-4506 or visit online.