A revival of Harold Pinter’s play, The Caretaker, is playing at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) Harvey Theater through June 17th. The three-character drama unfolds in a single cluttered and dingy London room.
The BAM website summarizes the plot:
“A pair of working-class brothers allows a homeless man to stay in their decrepit London flat, an act of compassion that sparks a cycle of cruelties, delusions, and shifting loyalties in a desperate struggle over territory. Pinter’s first great success, this work powerfully displays his sharp intelligence, masterful and spare use of language, and uncompromising exploration of life’s menace and comedy.”
The brothers are mirror images of each other. The quiet, sweater-vested older brother (Aston) shows unusual generosity to the homeless man. The younger brother (Mick) bursts into the scene in a leather jacket and cuffed jeans. First, I thought the younger brother was crazy and the older one sane; then the reverse appeared to be true. Ultimately, I decided they were both insane in different ways.
The homeless man gives his name as Bernard Jenkins, but admits that name is an alias; his real name is Mac Davies. Despite the focus on the man’s names (The Caretaker/Jenkins/Davies), the brothers are never identified by name.
Initially, Jenkins is grateful for a bed to sleep in, but like most people, his gratitude doesn’t last. Soon he is complaining about the draft from the window and about the broken stove sitting too close to his bed. Right off, he pesters Aston to find him a decent pair of shoes. Bernard is pretty fussy about the shoes it turns out, and he is ungrateful for the attempts that Aston makes to get him a pair.
Jenkins gets on his roommate’s nerves by nightly groaning in his sleep. In this respect, Jenkins and Aston could be any pair of roommates on the globe.
Jenkins and Aston have a common personality flaw. Both talk about what they need to do, how to “get fixed up.” Aston talks and talks about starting to build a shed, the first step in the remodeling project he must do. Jenkins must travel to Sidcup to get “his papers,” documents that were entrusted to someone fifteen years before. Each man is paralyzed and cannot take the first step to achieve his primary goal.
Mick, the younger brother, is an emotional rollercoaster—first angry, then friendly, then angry again. Both brothers offer Jenkins a position as caretaker of the premises, a vague position with unclear duties. With offers from both brothers, Jenkins attempts to play one brother off the other, a dangerous game when he has nothing of his own.
Jenkins shows a righteous anger that he isn’t entitled to, but his anger is wrapped in the universal dignity humans try to preserve in face of all adversity. When Bernard alienates both brothers, he tosses away his dignity and pleads to stay.
Jonathan Pryce (Brazil, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen), as Jenkins/Davies, owns the show with subtle humor as he portrays a man and his dignity at the lowest rung of society.
What does it all mean? I’m not sure, but the play’s action and subtleties will linger in my mind for some time.
BAM’s Harvey Theater with its cozy intimacy, enhances the set, a cluttered flat with a dirty skylight and the never-ending rain. The theater walls remind me of antique parchment paper partially stripped away exposing piping and cinder blocks. I felt I was watching great theater in an old sacred space.