By Frank Scheck
NEW YORK (Hollywood Reporter) - It seems fitting that this revival of Harold Pinter’s classic play should arrive on the 40th anniversary of both its original Broadway production and the first (and ridiculously, only) Broadway appearance by its star, Ian McShane.
This effortlessly charismatic actor, who refined malevolence to an art form in his recent run as Al Swearengen in the late, lamented HBO series “Deadwood,” provides almost single-handed the proper air of menace that this enigmatic play so desperately needs.
The meaning of Pinter’s play depicting the physically, emotionally and sexually charged reunion between a philosophy professor and his wife and the family he hasn’t seen in years has been debated endlessly since its 1967 London premiere. But it’s not necessary to form a cohesive interpretation of its increasingly surreal plot line to fully enjoy the wicked humor it deploys in its dissection of family and male-female dynamics.
It’s obvious from nearly the beginning, when crotchety patriarch Max (McShane) brandishes his cane as a weapon against his son Lenny (Raul Esparza), that all is not peaceful in this rundown old house in North London. The abode is uneasily shared by Uncle Sam (Michael McKean), whose sense of self-worth is defined by the loyalty of the customers he chauffeurs, and the physically imposing but simple-minded son Joey (Gareth Saxe), who has aspirations of a boxing career.
The play’s disturbing events are set in motion by the arrival in the middle of the night of son Teddy (James Frain), who decamped to America years ago with his wife Ruth (Eve Best) and has since raised a family of three children. To say that the pair are not greeted warmly by Max, who had no idea that his son was even married, is an understatement, since he immediately begins a verbal attack on Ruth that is as profane as it is vicious.
It isn’t long, however, before she has gained something of the upper hand, flaunting her sexuality -- particularly in the notorious scene in which she calmly describes the way her legs move and her underwear moves with them -- in a manner that has the dazzled men plotting to set her up in town as a prostitute and their personal meal ticket. Her less than horrified response to their proposal, not to mention Teddy’s surprising acquiescence, have simultaneously marked the play as a statement of feminist liberation and a indictment of male oppression.
The meanings don’t matter if the production has the proper combination of humor and danger, and this one never quite achieves it. Under the too laid-back direction of Daniel Sullivan, it never quite achieves the proper tension, and the uneven performances don’t help. McShane, as has been indicated, is perfection as Max, and Michael McKean and James Frain are more than adequate as the genial Sam and passive Teddy, respectively. But Raul Esparza doesn’t invest the sleazy Lenny with sufficient venom and, more damagingly, Eve Best underplays to the point of tedium as Ruth. If the character doesn’t galvanize the audience with her seductive powers, how are we to believe her ability to control this pack of human wildebeests?
Max: Ian McShane
Lenny: Raul Esparza
Sam: Michael McKean
Joey: Gareth Saxe
Teddy: James Frain
Ruth: Eve Best
Playwright: Harold Pinter; Director: Daniel Sullivan; Set designer: Eugene Lee; Costume designer: Jess Goldstein; Lighting designer: Kenneth Posner; Sound designer: John Gromada.