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The Homecoming

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THE HOMECOMING

Mary-Arrchie Theatre Company

at the Broadway Arts Center

"All in the Family" might not be a bad subtitle for The Homecoming. In Harold Pinter's best-known play the sins of the mother are visited on the sons--with compound interest--but most of all on a sister-in-law who worked overtime to deserve them. Tainting both familial and sexual relations here are several pungent, still menacing collective memories (some we can only guess at and the worst is only exploded at the end). The rancid legacy of a poisoned past--specifically the faithlessness of Jessie, the now dead wife and mother--as well as a few sleazy economic arrangements are the bonds that hold together this mean little North London family. The Huxtables they're definitely not.

Foul-mouthed, misogynistic, 70-year-old Max is Jessie's bitter widower and the much abusing and even more abused father of a snake pit of sons. The youngest, Joey, is dull-witted and horny, works for a wrecking company, and wants to be a boxer. The archly manipulating, sadistically smooth Lenny, whose employment is only revealed at the ugly end, insults his father and ignores his possibly gay uncle Sam, a chauffeur for a car-rental agency. Sam sits around, apparently listening to the sound of his IQ declining and feuding with his brother Max; they squabble like two old ladies fighting over a park bench.

The story unravels as Teddy, a philosophy teacher en route from a visit to Venice to his professorship in America, brings home Ruth, his bored and seething wife, to meet the folks. (This couple's resemblance to Albee's George and Martha is unavoidable.)

Teddy, it seems, secretly married Ruth without telling his father or brothers. We quickly discover why, as inevitably family history starts to repeat itself: Ruth has three children just as Max did, and increasingly she is coming to resemble Jessie in the worst way. Stirred by memories of a mother he never forgave, Lenny starts to take a more than brotherly interest in his sluttish sister-in-law, trying to impress her with sinister macho tales from his dark side (he loves to punch old ladies who don't show him enough respect). Joey gets even more intimate with her, as if trying her out for the trade. By the end, Ruth has been taken into the family and the family business--but she takes them in as well. So well that Max snickers, "You belong here!"

Creepiest discovery of all--while steamy Ruth is getting to know her relatives horizontally, husband Teddy remains icily indifferent. To him--of course it's a purely defensive rationalization--all that matters is to cultivate the kind of "intellectual equilibrium" that makes everyone else "just objects"; all else, even questions of philosophy, is "just not in my province." (Academic solipsism can go no further.) In the end, Ruth's tossed-off farewell to Teddy, "Don't become a stranger," is viciously anticlimactic. They all became just that long ago.

Psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton accurately describes the psychic numbing this play epitomizes, an "inner imagery that goes something like this: 'If I feel nothing, then death is not taking place'; or, 'If I feel nothing, I cannot be threatened by death all around me'; or, 'If I feel nothing, then I am not responsible for you and your death.'"

As Peter Hall proved in the original 1965 production, to do Pinter right you must strike a balance between overworking the famous pauses and overplaying the all-pervasive menace, and reducing everything to dark sitcom. There are equal doses of festering humor and deep existential despair. (When Sartre called human consciousness "a great emptiness, a wind blowing toward objects," he could have had The Homecoming in mind.)

Though this Mary-Arrchie Theatre Company production prefers the sarcastic to the sinister, director Joe Rezwin doesn't skimp on the Pinter recipe. His staging does play too brusquely with the Pinter rhythms. The unintentionally funny accents range around the world (most managing to avoid London altogether as they zero in on Brooklyn). Pauses (or maybe they're just hesitations) crop up where they shouldn't and are missing where they belong. Nonetheless, the essential Pinter remains unscathed and unrepentant. This Homecoming crackles, seethes, and stirs where it must, and two of its portrayals are Pinter perfect.

They are Jo-Ann DeAngelo as Ruth and James Venturini as Lenny. Slumped in a chair like someone auditioning to become upholstery, DeAngelo seethes with a libido so cold it could get a place on the Reagan cabinet, but pairs this with an oddly affecting little-girl primness that brilliantly comments on Ruth's hypocrisy. Venturini practically purrs his way through the part, sliding every line across the stage like a knife. When Lenny finally succeeds in replacing his mother with his sister-in-law, it feels exactly like a merger made in hell.

Physically if not emotionally too young for Max, Richard Cotovsky can still be hilarious splenetically launching the corrosive insults--"You wet wick!"--that this curmudgeon flings in all directions (most of these, though directed at his sons, are barbs he would have screamed at Jessie--"you tit," "you bitch"). But Cotovsky hasn't established Max's neediness, and as a result can't carry off his final breakdown, when, knowing it's impossible, Max pleads for love from Ruth that he never got from Jessie. As 63-year-old Sam, Rob Spadoni is even more miscast. His borscht-belt timing and adenoidal deadpan are totally wrong for the role.

As the other brothers, Gary Anello, gifted with a nicely sly slow burn (the perfect reaction for Teddy), fairly freezes over with academic sterility, while in clever contrast Tom Mahoney's handsome dingbat Joey is hot to trot, having emptied his mind of everything but boxing. But empty minds are all in this family.

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