What is going on in Harold Pinter's turgid, sometimes shocking, always fascinating script? Is it game-playing, madness, or a mere excuse for four superb actors and a probing director to plunge into a new world? When the production is this good, the exact answer won't matter to the audience. Let's peep in on four people in a room, each with his agenda, and allow our imaginations to spin.
Michael Peretzian could not have cast better, and he guides his actors with a strong, unifying vision that aids those actors but keeps his audience happily puzzled. Lawrence Pressman plays the mostly dapper host, Hirst, while Alan Mandell plays the mildly unkempt visitor, Spooner. Are they two strangers who met this night in London's outskirts, or are they long-lost acquaintances from their days at Oxford. "How is Emily?" Pressman's Hirst asks, but his eyes refuse to show any old familiarity with Spooner.
The two characters engage in high-status low-status games. Who will sit? Who will sit in the good chair? Pressman gazes disdainfully at Mandell as the latter uncomfortably tries to be seated. Or is Pressman's look merely an effort to focus by a man who has already consumed five whiskeys? Mandell plays his character as a haughty intellect wrapped in tattered brownness. When Mandell listens, when and where he turns his attention is masterful. How fascinating it would be if these two actors swapped roles for a few performances.
As Hirst's "assistants," John Sloan and Jamie Donovan finely represent their generation of stageworthy actors. Sloan's character arrives in the room, surprised, arrogant, friendly, and not yet menacing. By the time Sloan stalks the room to close the first act, the menace gently simmers. Donovan is thuggish in the first act's casual clothing, somehow even more thuggish post-intermission in a business suit. He looks, in a good way, as if he'll either bruise someone or burst into laughter. Reflecting rehearsals and living on the stage, he closes the door behind him with a practiced hook of his foot.
What's the tale behind Tom Buderwitz's hefty scenic design—part mundane, part mystery? What's in Spooner's slightly bulging pockets (costumes by Audrey Eisner)? What was the subtext on which Peretzian based his onstage world? And, in the highest compliment to the director, how did he make it look as if characters blocked themselves?
Presented by and at the Odyssey Theatre Ensemble, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., L.A. Oct. 31–Dec. 19. Thu.–Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m. (Except Sun., 7 p.m. only, Dec. 13. Dark Nov. 26.) (310) 477-2055. www.odysseytheatre.com.