Pinter Fortnightly. The Hothouse.
By now the memories of all the Pinter readings and performances I've seen are piled high in a corner of my mind, tangled together like fallen leaves. Two full plays - Betrayal (at Intiman in 1995) and last night's The Hothouse - countless one-acts, a handful of revue sketches, all have gradually coalesced together into a single body of work. At first sight, The Hothouse seems apart from the others, a broadly-drawn comedy which reminds me of Simon Callow's comment that "being British is inherently funny." But the physical, almost slapstick humor evolves, slowly, and darker elements creep in, as with Pinter's early works, such as The Room and The Dumb-waiter. There are explosions of temper and electric shock experiments and drinks thrown in faces and a sudden, violent end (which, of course, occurs off-stage).
The Hothouse comes from that earlier time, the late 1950's, the era of Pinter's "comedies of menace." I believe it was left unfinished and shelved, although one scene where a hapless institution employee undergoes testing by two other employees appeared as a revue sketch around the same time. This brief sketch was performed at an earlier Pinter Fortnightly reading, and the familiar words made me give a little jump of recognition in my seat. The Hothouse in its earlier incarnation then disappeared for twenty years, before it was resurrected and expanded, picking up undercurrents of political commentary along the way. (By now Pinter had passed through his period of "memory" plays - Betrayal, A Kind of Alaska - and had moved onto more overtly political plays).
What becomes clear across these different thematic eras is that a visible thread holds together this body of work: a fiercely beautiful mastery of language, a sharp intelligence, a black sense of humor. It creates a sense of cohesion between these fortnightly readings, helped in (a very great) part by a somewhat rotating repertory of actors who come together on their days off, who do these (free) readings out of love. It couldn't be done without a group of people who have chops, and boy do they ever have chops. The kind of skill and experience that allows this ever-changing crew to pull together a smoothly polished reading from a single afternoon of rehearsal. There is a sort of perfect alchemy between the staggeringly precise language of Pinter and the tremendous emotional and intellectual chemistry of the actors. Comedy is timing. Drama is trust. Here we have both, apparent with every word, every moment and movement, every look.
ACT Theatre (which hosts these Pinter Fortnightly readings) and I, we go way back. 1992. I was still in sixth grade when the season began. (I was not allowed to see the first play of the season, Steven Dietz's Trust, because of "mature thematic elements"). I remember the old theater near Seattle Center, in lower Queen Anne. There would be a crush of people at the snack bar during intermission and leaving at the end of the evening felt like being a salmon swimming upstream. I remember the parking lot where subscribers got to fit their cars into some kind of Tetris-like puzzle. I remember the first play I saw there, Shadowlands. The new theater downtown felt like another world. It still does, a little, even though it is now second nature to park my car at the Convention Center and make my way down the escalators. But the familiar faces remind me, again and again, that this will always be the theater I remember.