Not all plays are about the story. In fact, with many Harold Pinter plays, the story is the least interesting part. His works tend to center on character, the turbulence inherent in the relationships, and the intricately woven dialogue that sometimes goes nowhere. With The Edge of the Universe Theater’s production of “The Caretaker,” that is precisely what audiences get—a circuitous, pretty absurd journey that begins and ends in its confoundingly intriguing dialogue.
The acting is quite brilliant at times…It is Stephen Jarrett’s direction that brings these three very different characters together so convincingly.
The play follows the exploits of Davies (David Bryan Jackson), an older vagabond who, following a scuffle, goes “home” with Aston (Mark Krawczyk). Here is where the confusion and hilarity ensues. We quickly discover that Aston is not the owner of the house, but rather his brother Mick (Max Johnson) is. The house itself, which set designer Sarah Reed cleverly imagines as a shell versus a de facto abode, also becomes a head-scratching character in this production. Why is there random junk lying everywhere? What’s the story with the stove? What is the point of the boxes that Aston keeps accessing? “Enigma” seems to be a recurrent theme in “The Caretaker” as Pinter draws a series of twisty lines that never quite connect point A to point B, or point A to point Z for that matter.
Much of the excitement of this play lies in trying to figure out the precise nature of Aston and Mick’s relationship, who exactly is Davies/Jenkins, or how the “papers” to which the old man continuously refers represent his potential salvation. There are a series of riddles that are either not meant to be solved or that are otherwise unsolvable—and really, none of it matters anyway. Part of Pinter’s genius is leading audiences down seemingly inconsequential rabbit holes in order to get to something unexpectedly important, catastrophic, or shocking. In the case of “The Caretaker,” the primary thematic arc seems to center on psychological torment.
For example, the character of Mick thrives on tormenting a very confused Davies. Initially upon discovering Davies in the house, Mick threatens him. A cat-and-mouse scenario is set into motion. Mick then offers Davies a job as caretaker only to later rescind the offer, leaving the old man quite literally out in the cold.
Aston has endured actual torment. In a staggeringly heart-wrenching monologue, Krawczyk delivers up Aston’s past, his psychosis, his pain in a moment that seems so incongruous with the rest of the play and, yet, reveals exactly what this play is all about. Then, of course, there is Davies who is a bit of a scamp and becomes the mouse in this maze from which it appears there may be no escape. The set along with Christina Giles’ haunting lighting design and David Bryan Jackson’s sound design, combine to create a haunted house-style effect.
The acting is quite brilliant at times. Jackson’s homeless vagabond is at once both obnoxiously honest and wildly comedic. His tattered appearance—thanks to Lauren K. Lambie’s costuming—certainly fits the bill, and his insistence on “a good pair of shoes” is an absurdly droll request that perpetuates throughout the play. As Aston, Krawczyk plays it quiet and awkward until the aforementioned scene in which the character reveals how he became who and what he is now. It is a riveting performance as Krawczyk peels away the multiple layers of this character before our eyes, and then quickly wraps Aston back up, transforming once again into a reticent enigma.
As Mick, Johnson is just as enigmatic a presence though, versus the silent lurker that his brother seems to be, he gives us a man who frenetically rambles and intimidatingly threatens. The performance is certainly applause-worthy. We see a man who seems angrily adrift in a world that he doesn’t understand and that doesn’t necessarily understand him.
It is Stephen Jarrett’s direction that brings these three very different characters together so convincingly. Jarrett turns a lesser-known Pinter play into a type of choreographed poem that is wonderfully pleasing in its discordance and confusion—a difficult feat, but one that Jarrett pulls off quite well.
Running Time: One hour and 45 minutes with a 15-minute intermission.
Advisory: The play contains multiple uses of racial epithets.
“The Caretaker” runs through October 22, 2023, presented by The Edge of the Universe Theater at the Writer’s Center, 4508 Walsh Street, Bethesda, MD 20815. For more information and to purchase tickets go online.