Working-class Brits turned poets in Harold Pinter's 1950s plays give way to characters lost in a world of affluent privilege in this 1974 play, but these guys oddly don't seem a lot happier -- or any less pissed off at their place in the world -- than their earlier counterparts. This mounting marks the directorial debut of Theatre/Theater's Nicolette Chaffey, who plays a Pinteresque game with her own marriage by directing her husband, co-artistic director Jeff Murray, in the play's difficult pivotal role. Obviously the couple has a mutual respect for each other's unswerving and dependable talents, because Murray is mesmerizing as wealthy Hirst, a successful novelist who uses his grandly appointed Hampstead mansion mainly as a place to drink himself into oblivion rather than live.
Into this dysfunctional abyss comes Spooner (Will Utay), a shabby but somewhat arrogant fellow Hirst presumably met during one of his usual evenings of barhopping. As his guest regales himself with florid stories, boasting of his exploits and underappreciated talents as a poet, Hirst gets steadily drunker, perhaps to tune out the pompous you-know-what, eventually crawling -- literally -- to bed as Spooner watches like a hawk about to pounce on his prey.
Chaffey's remarkably unadorned and straightforward presentation creates a quietly palpable sense of danger that lurks just below the properly English manners. Utay is nearly perfect as Spooner, although he settles on honoring Pinter's opaque language without giving us a sense of why he's saying what he does. Andreas Brendle makes a wonderful Briggs, the more disquieting of the two menservants who watch over Hirst with a degree of ominous control, and Branden Morgan has the creepy, catlike grace and percolating menace of a Joe Orton street boy. Yet all performances bow to Murray's compellingly assured, indelibly heartbreaking performance, an almost Zenlike turn intensified by the feeling this actor is completely relaxed and at home from the moment the lights come up, which of course he is, as Murray built the theatre and the stage he and Chaffey can now claim as their own.
Presented by Claire Gerety-Mott for the WW Theater at Theatre/Theater, 5041 W. Pico Blvd., L.A. Fri.-Sat. 8 p.m. Jun. 1-Jul. 7. (323) 938-4220. www.theatretheater.net.