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The Lover/A Night Out





Mary-Arrchie Theatre

Harold Pinter is nothing if not meticulous. He creates images and selects words with enormous care and precision, and the result is plays with clean, crystalline facades. Beneath these exquisite surfaces steep repressed emotions, all the more potent for never having seen the light of day. In essence, Pinter's plays are like bad holidays with the family: everyone acts like everything is fine and talks about everything except what's really going on. At his best, Pinter maintains such tight dramatic focus that even the most mundane comment can take on enormous significance.

It is precisely this concentrated focus that Mary-Arrchie's productions of The Lover and A Night Out, both directed by Richard Cotovsky, unfortunately lack. I concede that in neither of these early works is Pinter at his best, making careful focus a definite challenge. But too often the seething undercurrent finds its way to the surface. And since that surface generally lacks the smoothness and tightness that Pinter requires, it seeps out in rather diluted concentrations.

The Lover is the story of Richard (Jordan Teplitz) and Sarah (Fran Martone), a middle-class British couple who have invented adulterous alter egos for themselves so that they can pretend to cheat on each other with each other. This sexual role playing, a rather desperate scheme to shore up an otherwise passionless marriage, quickly becomes a disturbing game of control and manipulation.

The excruciatingly ordinary Sarah and Richard get off to a good start as they chat graciously about her afternoon's planned adultery. But then Cotovsky drives a wedge into the action with a curiously long blackout between the first and second scenes. This blackout and many others during the course of the play seriously impede its momentum.

For most of the rest of the play, Martone and Teplitz try to follow Pinter's dramatic lines but too often wander. The problem seems to be that their characters' surfaces--the public faces they show each other--are crafted rather casually. We don't see their need to maintain these fronts. As the characters' worsening relationship threatens to break these facades, the drama doesn't heat up as it should since the characters don't have much invested in them in the first place.

Granted, The Lover is a difficult script. It isn't until halfway through the play that the audience discovers Sarah's lover is in fact her husband and vice versa. Only then does it sink in that the jealous needlings they exchange for the first half of the play--"Do you ever think about me at all when you're with her?" "Does it ever occur to you that while you're spending the afternoon being unfaithful to me I'm sitting at a desk going through balance sheets and graphs?"--refer not to other people but to themselves. Suddenly, then, just what these questions mean becomes quite mysterious.

Mystery is at the heart of this drama. It is the stuff one sinks one's teeth into when working on Pinter. Yet it seems curiously absent from this production. Teplitz and Martone rarely explore the heightened reality of their exchanges once it becomes clear that they are, after all, speaking in an elaborate code. Once the couple's secret is revealed, the early scenes only ring false, and the later scenes remain frustratingly static.

In A Night Out, Albert Stokes (J. Scott Turner), a lackluster young executive still living at home with his overbearingly needy mother, attempts to slip from her grasp for a night by going out to an office party. There he is ridiculed by an overachieving colleague, Gidney, and belittled by coworkers Joyce and Eileen. When he goes home with an apparent hooker later that night, her haughtiness drives him into a violent rage.

Originally written for television, A Night Out requires an extremely focused production. Not only does the play change locations many times, but the central scene--the office party--demands that ten actors be onstage for about 20 minutes while various fractured conversations are tossed around the room. Mary-Arrchie simply doesn't clarify the action adequately to make the drama compelling. Scenes tend to drift when they should drive forward.

Like The Lover, this production is also seriously hampered by seemingly endless blackouts between scenes. When they're necessary in order to change the scene the effect is almost comical, with lots of actors shuffling about in darkness carrying too much furniture on and off stage several times; it seems particularly strange to strike a sofa and chair at the top of the show only to bring them back on later so that all the actors can end up standing behind them in a line. When the blackouts are technically unnecessary--in one scene two actors merely have to pass through a doorway--the play simply stops dead.

These two unfocused presentations not only stretch the evening to nearly two and a half hours but bury some fine acting under a lot of dead weight. Both plays hit their stride in the home stretch. Martone's carefully controlled breakdown near the end of The Lover is powerfully delivered, as is Turner's disturbingly violent rage against all the women in his life. Had these plays been given stronger foundations on which to build, the evening might have found its pace much sooner.

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