There's something a little "off" about SHN's touring production of The Caretaker, by Harold Pinter and starring Tony Award winner Jonathan Pryce. "Off" is usually a compliment for the Nobel Prize-winning playwright, who's known for dramatizing the menace and absurdity characteristic of post-World War II British society. Throughout his canon, which includes masterpieces such as The Homecoming and The Dumb Waiter, characters break basic rules of decorum without explaining themselves, and no one ever asks them to. Chaos is expected; terror is swallowed. Instead of conversing, characters either ramble in stream-of-conscious monologue or sit in stony silence -- a Pinterian pause gone awry.
In some ways, The Caretaker is another variation on this theme. At rise, Davies (Pryce) and Aston (Alan Cox) are in Aston's flat, an indoor junkyard where the dirt caked onto the wallpaper seeps into the mold on the ceiling. The blankets are so dusty that shaking them out creates a volcanic eruption, and the drips from the leaky ceiling are so loud as to comment on the proceedings like a comedian's percussionist. (It's a testament to Colin Grenfell's glowing, painterly lighting design that this set looks attractive.) Aston is offering Davies -- or Jenkins, his "assumed" name -- a bed for a while, provided the two can find it underneath the towers of junk. Simple enough, except the two just met today, Davies is a crazy homeless man, and Aston might not own or live in the flat he's offering to share.
It seems a classic Pinter setup, with Davies caught between Aston and his brother Mick (Alex Hassell), who also claims to be landlord, and each actor is well cast in his part. Pryce revels in being a derelict with sophisticated taste in shoes, a compulsive talker with little of interest to say, a pauper with a king's sense of entitlement. He makes delightful sound effects to keep the noise constant when his vocabulary fails him and uses classic clowning physicality to fill in all the rest -- one groin adjustment is at once graphic and balletic. Cox and Hassell also hit their marks. Cox's catatonic delivery and measured pace aptly suggest his dark past, while Hassell deftly embodies his character's mercurial qualities with wild eyes and fierce postures.
But while each performance is very fine on its own, together the three actors make for a trio of clowns in a play that's trying to be more serious. The result is a kind of in-between work, where jokes that could be much funnier garner only mild titters, and moments that could be much tenser can't ratchet up the stakes. Neither menacing nor manic, the play instead feels like a series of well-designed, well-staged moments, some of which transcend their surroundings, but most of which leave us feeling a little off -- and not in a good way.