Steppenwolf revives dark Pinter comedy `The Caretaker'

The Caretaker Play by Harold Pinter. Directed by John Malkovich. Chicago's astonishing Steppenwolf Theatre Company has come to the uptown Circle in the Square with a bold revival of ``The Caretaker,'' by Harold Pinter. Under the discerning direction of John Malkovich, three gifted Steppenwolf actors thread their way through the tangled interplay of relationships unfolding beneath the leaky roof of a west London attic. The performance brilliantly explores the enigmas and at the same time exploits the comic possibilities of the wintry 1960 tragicomedy.

The situation is typically Pinterian -- in other words, mysteriously straightforward. Aston (Jeff Perry), a quiet young would-be carpenter with a mental breakdown in his past, rescues and shelters Davies (Alan Wilder), a scruffy old drifter who was being worsted in a scuffle at the caf'e that employed him. Although Aston occupies the junky garret, the house belongs to his sharp-witted brother Mick (Gary Sinise), a small-time building contractor. Davies's crafty efforts to install himself and alienate the brothers from each other create the central tensions of ``The Caretaker.''

Mr. Wilder's Davies is aggressively self-important, yet insecure. He is truculent, bigoted, and transparently divisive. The actor has given him a shuffling waddle to go with his perpetual twaddle. Davies's prospects are as illusory as the identification papers he is constantly promising to reclaim. Mr. Wilder relishes the old rascal's comic pomposity (especially in an outsize red smoking jacket), as well as recognizing the fear and humiliation Davies is struggling to outface.

The encroacher's duplicity, plus the brothers' unspoken rapport, results in the ousting of the odd man out who wanted so desperately to be in. By then, Mr. Perry has movingly recounted Aston's ordeal by shock treatment. For his part, Mr. Sinise's laid-back Mick has displayed the cruelty that underlies his jocular chaffing of Davies and the rage of which he is capable.

At two hours and 40 minutes (with two intermissions), the production moves with a deliberation that can tax the spectator. But there are compensations enough in the meticulously balanced and orchestrated performance. The comic flights are often hilarious. The sudden violence can seem almost percussive. And just the place for these taut theatrics is the cluttered attic designed and lighted by Kevin Rigdon. The costumes are by the director. The Mound Builders Play by Lanford Wilson. Directed by Marshall W. Mason.

The Circle Repertory company opened its season at the Triplex Theatre with a revised version of Lanford Wilson's 1975 ``The Mound Builders.'' The action of the tragedy alternates between the Urbana university campus and an archaeological site at Blue Shoals, Ill. As Prof. August Howe (Jake Dengel) dictates notes to accompany the photographic slides covering the previous summer's excavation of an Indian burial ground, he introduces the events leading up to its disastrous outcome.

The events concern Howe's assistant, young Dr. Dan Loggins (Ken Marshall) and his pregnant wife, Jean (Sharon Schlarth); Howe's cheating wife, Cynthia (Stephanie Gordon), whose photographs provide the blowups for John Lee Beatty's scenic design; Howe's hypochondriac sister, Delia (Tanya Berezin); and Chad Jasker (Bruce McCarty), whose family anticipates profiting from tourist trade generated by the Indian diggings.

The gifts that have served Mr. Wilson so admirably in other works, notably the Talley family cycle, appear to be insufficiently at work in ``The Mound Builders.'' The tragic climax of this discursive morality play seems predictable rather than surprising. Apart from Miss Berezin's acidulous Delia, the characters and their problems arouse no particular concern.

The capable players mentioned in this report make up one of two casts assigned to ``The Mound Builders,'' which has been staged by Marshall W. Mason. The Wilson revival was followed by an adaptation of Stuart Gilbert's translation of the 1938 ``Caligula,'' by Albert Camus (which I have not seen). A third play, ``Quiet in the Land,'' by Canadian dramatist Anne Chislett, is scheduled to join the repertory on Feb. 28. the Circle Rep productions are designed by Mr. Beatty, lighted by Dennis Parichy, and costumed by Jennifer von Mayrhauser.

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