A 'Homecoming' Fit for Pinter
• Theater review: Director Andrew J. Robinson proves himself a rugged
interpreter of enigmatic drama in this fluid staging of the playwright's
by Laurie Winer
Clockwise from bottom L: Sebastian Roche,
Lynnda Ferguson, Gregory Itzin & Philip Baker Hall
The central event in Harold Pinter's 1965 play "The
Homecoming" is an ominous thing-puzzling, disturbing, sexually taut and
really weird. Critics have argued for years over the meaning of the
welcome received by a British professor when he brings his wife home from
America to meet the most sinister family this side of the Krays. Director
Andrew J. Robinson goes straight to the crooked heart of the play in this
new production at the Matrix Theatre in West Hollywood. His "Homecoming"
is as fluid and funny as a harrowing ride can be. The homestead into which
the professor brings his wife is a masculine domain, overseen by an aging
tyrant of a father, his emasculated brother and two sons, Lenny and Joey,
each one menacing in his own way. The men veer between respect for Ruth,
the professor's wife, and gross insult, with an emphasis on the latter.
Yet Ruth remains strangely unsullied, even when she is pawed.
As he did with his production of Samuel Beckett's
"Endgame" a few months ago at the Matrix, Robinson—who in another lifetime
played the hippie psychopath in "Dirty Harry"—proves himself a rugged
interpreter of enigmatic drama. His actors find comedy in depraved corners
of humanity, and they deliver finely etched performances in roles that
could be played as blandly archetypal.
Robinson has some kind of special bond, it would seem,
with the wonderful Gregory Itzin, who played the cowering Clov in
"Endgame." Here, as Lenny, Itzin radiates hostile potential while sitting
in an armchair picking horses to bet on from the newspaper. He is a
fastidious dresser; his narrow tie and dress socks all seem to indicate a
precision cruelty. When, through force of habit, his father threatens him,
Lenny answers with a calm, "Don't use your stick on me, Daddy. No,
please." His light sarcasm calls up some long-ago day when the boy
couldn't defend himself against the man, at the same time serving as a
chilling reminder that Lenny now has the means as well as the cause to
beat his old dad.
The smartest one in the family, Lenny is sarcastically
sure that no one in the room will be able to give him an answer when he
ventures a question such as "What do you make of all this business of
being and not being?" His working-class accent and bored expression are
very funny when he challenges Teddy, his ineffectual professor brother, to
a little verbal debate: "I want to ask you something. Do you detect a
certain logical incoherence in the central affirmations of Christian
Granville Van Dusen's Teddy meets his brother's hostile
challenge with nothing but a supercilious stare; this is a man who seems
to believe he is holding onto his male dignity even as his family stomps
on it and then grinds its heel into it. As the other emasculated figure,
Uncle Sam, the self-styled "chauffeur" who drives people to the airport,
Howard Honig enters looking like an overworked undertaker. His tired face
collapses further and further under each fresh insult doled out by his
brother Max, the patriarch.
As Max, W. Morgan Sheppard looks like the latter-day
Hemingway, with a booming voice that creeps very low to a threat. In his
suspenders and cane, he is both frightening and pathetic as the aging,
once-terrifying character. It is the genius of the play, seen particularly
in Sheppard's performance, that it is both archetypal and very specific,
both metaphoric and realistic, at the same time.
Christian Svenson is appropriately Neanderthal and
squashed-looking as the amateur boxer Joey, whose lascivious looks at Ruth
help build the play's tension. As Ruth, ostensibly the victim of the men's
hostility, Sharon Lawrence shows she is in absolute control of the
situation at all times with her beauty-school posture and above-it-all
stare (she has the alluring, thick-lashed eyes of the original Barbie
doll). Her line readings, though, are a bit affected.
Set and lighting designer Neil Peter Jampolis has done
a superb job creating a living room that bespeaks long-ago better times
for the family. The feminine touch of the dead matriarch—seen in the
carefully chosen antimacassars on the faded sofa—has been all but
obliterated by male neglect. The entire room has a not-quite-clean gray
sheen, and there are water stains on the highest parts of the walls. Yet
clearly the room is also a shrine to the dead mother. It seems to hold the
secret to the play—it knows what went on there when the boys were young
and the mother was still there to protect them or not.
The Matrix offers two casts in "The Homecoming." The
actors playing mix and match with the ones I saw are Allan Arbus (Sam),
Lynnda Ferguson (Ruth), David Dukes (Teddy), Philip Baker Hall (Max),
Sebastian Roche (Joey) and Cotter Smith (Lenny).
Los Angeles Reader, December 8, 1995
Acting for Acting's Sake
• Matrix's Homecoming is an Exquisite Minuet of Menace
by Michael Frym
The Matrix Theatre Company's production of The
Homecoming is the finest rendition of Harold Pinter to hit L.A. stages
in years. Joseph Stern's group has once again proven it is the city's
surest ticket to quintessential, professional theater.
Pinter is unquestionably an actor's playwright — just
peruse a bit of the script, and you'll feel the drive to read it aloud. To
a greater extent than his other works, the success of The Homecoming
relies entirely on superb acting. Almost nothing else happens — just
acting. The playwright scores his script's nuances and pauses with the
precision and planning of a composer. Nothing is left to chance, and,
here, every taut, riveting beat is realized with menacing subtext by the
top-drawer cast. (As usual, the company double-casts each role, and mixes
the actors throughout the run of the show.)
Stagewise from his years as an actor, Pinter also knows
that words are not enough, that his dialogue needs a context to make the
intimidating impact of his dark script fully palpable. So, he provides
twisted, acutely dramatic conflicts, where animosity and terror result in
steamy undercurrents between his characters, which constantly threaten to
blow the lid off their glacial exteriors.
Pinter's point of view is coolly objective. The
Homecoming was his most lucrative commercial success, due largely to
its scandalous nature. Without moral judgment, it tells the story of a
crude father and former butcher, Max. (W. Morgan Sheppard), and his two
sensual sons, a wannabe boxer, Joey (Sebastian Roche), and a dangerous,
tightly wrapped pimp, Lenny (Gregory Itzin). Upon the surprise homecoming
of a third son, the unassertive college professor Teddy (David Dukes),
this Gorey-esque trio make a family "whore" of Teddy's wife, Ruth (Lynnda
Ferguson), with her laconic consent. All the characters accept this amoral
situation without comment or external feeling.
The Homecoming is values-free as well as plot-free.
The characters' actions have little relation to how most people would
behave in a similar situation, and more to do with what makes a
theatrically effective "moment." This disconnection results in an
omnipresent menace, which is totally out of proportion with the
circumstances that caused it, so each inference and curse masks a
potential snicker of farce. One could almost believe the whole endeavor is
Pinter's personal cosmic joke.
Andrew J. Robinson's economical direction trims any
acting excesses, leaving a lean, powerfully piercing work. At no point
does he lose control — every moment involves a specific choice, made in
concert by Robinson and his ensemble. The actors realize they are playing
"moments" and "Pinter pauses," and protect themselves: The cast
occasionally camps ever so slightly. Sheppard exudes a bizarre magnetism,
something akin to a crass, blarney-blabbering Irishman. He repeatedly
engages the audience as he spews his contempt indiscriminately at his sons
and his brother, Sam (Allan Arbus).
Dukes paints an intriguing Teddy, maintaining a feint
smile straight through events that are so humiliating, the audience
repeatedly wonders whether he'll crack under the strain. But, just as
Teddy is perceived as a doormat who is about to lose Ruth to his depraved
relatives, Dukes plants the suggestion that Teddy's return to the family
front is a premeditated decision to rid himself of a wife who's beneath
his station, while repaying his father and brothers for his upbringing. In
the end, he leaves — not the abandoned husband, but a victor realizing
closure on a bad chapter in his life.
Roche establishes Joey as a shell-shocked buffoon,
exquisitely bumbling and bestial in his amorous engagements with Ruth,
while Itzin plays Lenny as a man on the edge, who covers his violent
nature with feigned indifference. As Max's chauffeur brother, Arbus makes
use of the intrinsic awkwardness of this underdeveloped character. His
discomfort plays as an effort at normalcy in a consummately abnormal
situation. Ferguson is stunning with her icy calm — it's meticulous work,
as is all the company's craftsmanship.
The somber North London living room set, bathed in
stark lighting, is an artistic triumph for designer Neil Peter Jampolis.
In the end, The Homecoming surfaces as a play
constructed of the psychological substance that leads to paranoia and
repulsion — epitomized by the cast's expertly choreographed minuet of
Feature Article: Los Angeles Times
He Knows How to Handle Evil
• Andrew J. Robinson has gone from 'Dirty Harry' villain to directing a
revival of Pinter's mean-spirited 'The Homecoming.'
by Janice Arkatov
As an actor,
Andrew J. Robinson knows a lot about evil. He bore into it headfirst as
the psycho-scumbag in the original "Dirty Harry," and later as killer Jack
Abbott in the Mark Taper Forum production of "In the Belly of the Beast."
He's back again now in those emotionally murky waters, directing a
critically acclaimed revival of "The Homecoming" (at the Matrix Theatre),
Harold Pinter's scabrous tale of a middle-aged man who brings his British
wife back from America into his family's London homestead.
"It's a tough, mean play," acknowledges
Robinson, 53, a founding member of the in-house Matrix Theatre Company.
"And that's what's so difficult about doing it. You have to go to that
dark side in yourself, remember the choices you made in your life that
you're not proud of—but you have to cop to. I think the success of this
production is based on the consensus we've achieved as a company: coming
up with the stories below the surface, bringing to the playing experience
our human experience."
Complicating matters, perhaps, is the
fact that Robinson (whose TV credits include the recurring role of Garak
in "Star Trek: Deep Space Nine" and the title role in the ABC movie
"Liberace") has double-cast the piece—meaning he has 12 actors creating 12
different characterizations for six roles.
"I'm a big proponent of double-casting,"
stresses the actor, who was doubled in Matrix productions of "Habeas
Corpus" and "The Tavern" and directed a well-received double-cast revival
of Samuel Beckett's "Endgame" last summer. (A reprise staging of "Endgame"
will open March 14.) Beyond practical concerns—the
company is made up of professional actors who need the flexibility to
pursue TV and film work—Robinson enjoys the aesthetic of the expanded
"Everyone comes to every rehearsal," he
says proudly. "Sometimes it's like a tag team. In the middle of a scene,
the actors switch: 'Now you go up there.' Or we do shadowing; one actor is
onstage, the other is there almost as a doppelganger."
Robinson acknowledges it's not always an
easy fit. "A lot of the actors had some resistance at first: 'It's my
role, my choices, my answers!' But as people give up that propriety, they
begin working on the role together, leveraging the play for information:
how to play a moment, find a subtext, even a simple blocking."
Potentially daunting for Robinson was
that, before "Endgame," he had not directed professionally for 15 years.
But returning, he says, was like getting back on the proverbial bicycle.
"Except," he says cheerfully, "that
working with people of this caliber, it was a streamlined, top-of-the-line
bicycle. I like to work as a director as I do an actor—as a collaborator.
So one of the tools I picked up was [saying] 'I don't know.' I
found such power, such trust that I wasn't going to pretend [or]
answer something when I didn't know."
Still, he admits being intimidated— and regularly
challenged. "These people are doing this for no money, for the love of the
craft. They're not going to fart around."
The New York-born Robinson was 3 when his father was
killed in World War II. (Since directing "Endgame," he's been using his
middle initial "J." as a tribute to his maternal grandfather Jordt, whom,
he says, "was the main male influence in my early life.")
"It was basically a terrible childhood," the actor
says, gently referring to his late, much-married mother who battled
alcoholism and a nervous breakdown. At 10, he made his acting debut as a
shepherd in a school Christmas play. "I was pretty pumped; people were
Later, he attended the London Academy of Music and
Dramatic Art as a Fulbright scholar, and after graduation spent the next
few years in repertory in Milwaukee, Cincinnati, Providence, R.I., and
In 1971, Robinson was tapped for the bad-guy role in
"Dirty Harry." (He was the sniveling recipient of Clint Eastwood's famous,
climactic gun-wielding taunt: "You could ask yourself a question, 'Do I
feel lucky?' Well, do ya, punk?") "With that film, I gained my career and
lost my career," the actor says with a sigh. "I felt very proud of my
work, but it ended up being such a scurrilous, despicable character that
people didn't want to know from me. It was a hard pill to swallow."
Robinson retreated to New York (where he and director Joel Zwick had run a
theater company in the late '60s) and didn't return to L.A. until 1978,
when TV roles started coming in. Yet he quickly grew disenchanted with the
quality of work being offered him, and in 1980, after a particularly
"horrendous" experience on TV's "The A-Team," he essentially quit the
business, selling his L.A. home and moving to Idyllwild, Calif.
There, he and his wife, Irene, (they'll be married 26
years in March, and between them have three children and two
grandchildren) ran an integrated arts program for children and teenagers.
"My last few productions directing adults were not very exciting," he says
dryly. "So I stayed with children for many years."
Then in 1984 came an acting project he couldn't resist:
Taper, Too's landmark production of "In the Belly of the Beast," the
hellish memoirs of incarcerated murderer/writer Jack Abbott.
"It was a hair-raising experience," he says bluntly.
"Doing that play really took its toll. 'Homecoming' has a thread of evil,
but 'Belly' is about evil." In spite of its physical and psychic
rigors, the show was a godsend for Robinson:. He later played it at the
Taper, toured to Australia and New York and won an L.A. Drama Critics
Circle Award for his performance. Most importantly, it took Robinson's
career—and the way he was perceived by the industry—to a new level. "It
brought me back to L.A., and back to the business on my own terms," he
says simply. "I have no apologies. This is the work I want to do, what I
want to take to my grave."