Even before The Caretaker officially opened this weekend, the buzz was humming in theater streams. The word is out, the show is a strange and stunning experience.
Harold Pinter’s The Caretaker is less frequently performed than his more well-known plays probably because “it’s not easy to watch or even understand” — the disclaimer is right there on the production’s program material. But that’s Pinter, and some of us think he’s worth the struggle.
A quick synopsis: Two strange brothers have a strange encounter with, you guessed it, a strange stranger. Each brother separately offers the man a “job” of caring for their decrepit property, only nobody confirms what that means, so they all swirl along with their own delusions and oddities in dealing with each other. The program says, “…they’re soon at odds as kindness and loyalties give way to cruelties unleashed and lies exposed in this bitingly funny psychological exploration of life’s menace and absurdity.” Only Pinter could pull this off, and a special cast is required to make it work. The production at the Writer’s Center has a winning combination of talent, experience, and verve.
At first, I thought that David Bryan Jackson would be the major draw — he is an absolute treasure in the metro region and beyond, and I have yet to see a false move out of him. His entrance and opening animated montage as old Davies sputtering nonsense is marvelous, pontificating about what he would’ve done to the other guy in a scuffle if Aston hadn’t shown up and brought him to his flat. We find out later Davies is destitute and rather homeless, but that doesn’t stop his bravado about his plans and what he could’ve done.
Then I saw the other two actors at work and I was just as mesmerized. Mark Krawczyk as older brother Aston is a quiet gentle giant hulk of a man who listens to the jabbering Davies and for some reason provides aid and assistance to help him out. Aston offers Davies a place to stay, finds clothes for him, quality shoes, even clears furniture and household items from off the extra bed in the shabby cluttered room for him to sleep. They settle into a somewhat stable routine overnight, when younger brother Mick played with slick ease by Max Johnson pops in.
Mick is the live wire, dangling bits of sanity, periodically making sense, then tumbling into a morass of gibberish himself. But then, thanks to the brilliance of Pinter, there are moments when the blathering morphs into absolute clarity. Mick describes plans to “remodel” the flat with the precision of a master designer, complete with azure-colored carpets, beautifully carved bureaus, and exquisite light fixtures. Mick slithers and slides onto the scenes, even points with his leg and foot while reclining. He confidently weaves a fantasy world for Davies, who switches his alliance from the brother who rescued him to Mick.
Mick soon shows his mercurial side accusing Davies of trespassing on the property and even torments the old guy jostling, withholding his items, and bullying him until Aston rises up and with not a word but a steady serious gesture puts an end to the shenanigans. The roughhousing immediately stops, and we’re back to deliberating who’s really in charge, an ongoing loop of wonder. The stakes only get bigger as we find out from Aston’s remarkable soliloquy that helps explain his mental circumstances. The rest of the play is filled with turmoil about twisted alliances where Davies gets cast off like a bad shoe (as in August Wilson’s Ma Rainey, shoes are significant in the show) and expectations are in disarray. By the end, Davies spouts a line asking, “What about me?” That’s what we’re all left wondering. Pinter doesn’t tie anything up in tidy bows — this as his first successfully produced work is a testament to that. Instead, we’re left with a mesmerizing jostling of three strange characters wrestling with their own absurd place in life, and maybe even pondering our own questions of — What about me?
The trio works because of all the talent bursting out of the actors directed with maniacal glee by Stephen Jarrett. It’s unusual to highlight casting directors but in this case, Naomi Robin is getting well-deserved accolades for securing this powerhouse trio. Properties designer Liz Long gets kudos for amassing and keeping track of all the clutter that fills the set, including a bucket hanging from the ceiling periodically catching loud drops of water in the terrific sound design by all-purpose Jackson. Lighting by Christina Giles reflects the changing moods as the moments shift from humorous to morose to reflective, and includes a spotlight on a jubilant Buddha figure statue that Ashton seems to treasure so much until he doesn’t. Costumes by Lauren K. Lambi clearly distinguish the brothers’ tailored wardrobe with suitcoats, fitted trousers, and of course, buffed and polished shoes, from the stained and threadbare rags for Davies.
The Caretaker was first staged in London in 1960, then opened on Broadway in 1961. Alan Bates was in the film version in the 1960s and Patrick Stewart played Davies in a New York revival 20 years ago. There’s obviously something there to entice the greats, and it’s remarkable that a small theater company in Bethesda has the moxie to tackle it.
For those not familiar with the producing company, The Edge of the Universe Theater (formerly The Edge of the Universe Players 2), their blurb describes their philosophy:
We love plays with big meanings that transcend particular ages and cultures. And we hope that cultural influences, including theatre, can change some part of the human family—or even one person—toward a more bearable, insightful, hopeful, or self-determining state. The subjects of our plays may include individual liberty, family, power, religion, death, or other fundamental issues of human existence.
This production of The Caretaker speaks volumes about the company’s reach and potential. Here’s hoping there will be more in store.
Running Time: Two hours and 10 minutes, including a 15-minute intermission.
The Caretaker plays through October 22, 2023, presented by The Edge of the Universe Theater at The Writer’s Center (4508 Walsh Street, Bethesda, MD), with performances Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 2:30 p.m. & 8 p.m., and Sunday at 2:30 p.m. Purchase tickets ($25) at the door or online. Additionally, a limited number of $20 discounted tickets are available as part of TheatreWeek (through October 8).
COVID Safety: Masks are optional in current practice.
The Caretaker by Harold Pinter
Directed by Stephen Jarrett
Cast: David Bryan Jackson, Max Johnson, Mark Krawczyk
Sarah Reed: Scenic Designer; David Elias: Stage Manager; Lauren K. Lambie: Costume Designer; Christina Giles: Lighting Designer; David Bryan Jackson: Sound Designer and Composer; Liz Long: Properties Designer; Naomi Robin: Casting Director