Chilly Scenes of Pinter

An audience member once wrote to playwright Harold Pinter: "Dear Sir, I would be obliged if you would kindly explain to me the meaning of your play The Birthday Party. These are the points I do not understand: (1) Who are the two men? (2) Where did Stanley come from? (3) Were they all supposed to be normal? You will appreciate that without the answers to my questions I cannot fully understand your play." Pinter replied: "Dear Madam, I would be obliged if you would kindly explain to me the meaning of your letter. These are the points which I do not understand: (1) Who are you? (2) Where do you come from? (3) Are you supposed to be normal? You will appreciate that without the answers to my questions I cannot fully understand your letter."

As this letter-writer discovered, you don't get plain and simple answers from Pinter, the master of creating opaque but loaded scenarios. Three of Pinter's murky one-acts are being given a spare and powerful presentation by Stages, in a production directed by Sidney Berger and starring longtime Alley veteran Charles Krohn, alongside several other notable Houston actors. The name Stages chose for their Pinter evening, A Kind of Alaska -- taken from one of the three plays -- is apt, for the Pinter landscape is an undefined, snowy sort of region, poetic and chillingly poignant, raw and yet familiar.

Victoria Station and A Kind of Alaska are more vignettes than plays -- which is entirely in their favor. In the first, a London taxicab dispatcher contacts one of his cars to pick up a passenger at Victoria Station. The cabby nonchalantly says he's never heard of it. The dispatcher is understandably aghast at the driver's blase ignorance of this most basic of cabby destinations. Almost like a playgoer new to Pinter, the dispatcher tries -- unsuccessfully -- to make sense of it all. His aggravation mounts at the driver's unrelenting denseness, and he finally explodes into a Pinter universe of queer lucidity and meaning. The absurdity of the situation opens up deeper, desperate wells, leading him to look at what's of real concern in his life, the stuff that normally goes unspoken and even unrecognized because it's been piled under the snow of everyday discourse and duties and concerns.

What's going on here? the crabby letter-writer might well ask. Like museumgoers reacting to an abstract painting, the audience brings much of the interpretation from their own experiences. Perhaps the play is about trying to talk to all the world's nincompoops, those people who refuse to understand even the most basic concepts. Or perhaps it's about being asked to do something about which you have utterly no concept. Or perhaps it's simply about isolation, about two men talking to each other on the black stage, each huddled in his lonely spotlight. Pinter is an academic critics' darling because, with him, interpretations abound, and by rights they all contain some portion of the truth.

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The second playlet of the evening, A Kind of Alaska, takes its subject matter and inspiration from Oliver Sack's Awakenings, a book that recounted the use of a drug that "awakened" patients who had contracted encephalitis lethargica, or sleeping sickness. The play shows Deborah, who contracted the Rip Van Winkle disease at age 16, and now awakens a woman in her 40s. About four-fifths monologue by this bright impetuous child in a middle-aged body, the play evokes more Pinter questions and empathies: of being allegedly "woken" into a life in which we've little idea what it is we're supposed to be up to. Of being told we're adults, despite all our own knowledge to the contrary. And of spending a great deal of time in a limbo of experience -- the dreamlike state Deborah describes as "dancing in very small spaces" -- that's deemed outside "real" life.

Coming after the evening's sole intermission, the third of the Pinter trio, The Collection, has a longer duration and larger cast. Pinter has said that the common view of reality is of a fixed and level ground, whereas he sees it more as quicksand. Like Rashomon or The Alexandria Quartet, The Collection keeps presenting different takes on a single incident. A wife has told her husband she had an affair while at a convention; whether the affair actually occurred is never determined, although a series of revelations change the undoubtedly real relationships we can see on stage. One person will seem on top in the games of power and affection, then another. The one-act may start with what seems a jealous and obsessed husband, but it ends with something far different.

Five actors fill all the roles in the three playlets. As A Kind of Alaska's flailing Deborah, Barbara Caren Sims is engaging, alternately trying to come to grips with her new world and make the world come to grips with her. Her shrill precociousness keeps us stirred up throughout the twists and turns of her monologue; although at times lacking nuance, her Deborah is both beguiling and piercing. Charles Krohn appears in all three pieces, each time with a new character, although always with a kind of distance -- from amiable and doltish in Victoria Station to sourly commanding in The Collection -- that serves as a successful foil for Pinter's emotional ambiguity. Rutherford Cravens turns in a splendid meat-and-potatoes performance as the perplexed cabby dispatcher. Luis Lemus is as sharp and magnetic as Bill, the alleged lover in The Collection.

The two shorter pieces work better than the last one-act, in part because by the time of The Collection the audience has started to wear thin from so much non-narrative vagueness. "My plays are getting shorter," Pinter said some time back. "Words are so tender. One-act plays are all I seem to be able to write at the moment." These one-acts at Stages are tender indeed, if menace can cohabitate with softness in the same work. Although Pinter doesn't provide any ready-to-wear dramatic answers -- and his cryptic plays certainly don't hook everyone -- he's curiously effective at evoking the enigmatic human mind and heart.

"A Kind of Alaska," an evening of plays by Harold Pinter, plays through February 12 at Stages Repertory Theater, 3201 Allen Parkway, 527-8243.

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