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By Erin Browner
"I hate Pinter." "I hate Pinter, too." These words don't sound like the most obvious way to kick off a series of one-act plays inspired by the work of Harold Pinter. The Nobel Prize-winning author (who turns 76 this week) has become such a figurehead over the past 50 years that he has even joined the rarified circle of authors considered so influential that their very names (Shaw, Chekhov, Kafka, Joyce, Brecht, etc.) have spawned adjectives. As a result, you'd imagine that most attempts by other playwrights to capture Pinter's spirit to be either acts of groveling worship or jaunty pastiche.
Thankfully, the six original shorts based on Pinter's drama The Lover that constitute "Pinteresque" avoid prostrating themselves at the marbled feet of the literary colossus. Instead, they treat the source material a spicy and ultimately life-affirming keyhole view of the fetishistic private life of a seemingly prim suburban husband and wife with gleeful irreverence.
Several of the one-acts (all penned by Bay Area playwrights) have fun with The Lover's theme of sexual role-play. In Rebecca Moutray's Games, for instance, a woman and a man try to inject a little romance into their relationship by pretending to be characters from famous films (such as Gone With the Wind). Jeff Thompson's Extra Ordinary turns Pinter's plot upside down: Borrowing a tactic famously employed by Tom Stoppard in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, it retells the story of The Lover through the eyes of the Milkman (a minor character who appears for about five seconds in the middle of Pinter's play) and his stay-at-home boyfriend.
Various playwrights also send up Pinter's language. Jennifer Daly's Re-Fresh (in which The Lover's protagonists, Richard and Sarah, consider a slew of sex aids beyond the headache-inducing bongo drums of the original) and The Beginning by Charles E. Polly (concerning a couple of S/M enthusiasts' attempts to find new ways to pleasure each other that don't involve grievous bodily harm) spoof The Lover's clipped, pseudo-polite speech patterns.
Although these one-acts successfully avoid the groveling route, their relentless, cheery exploitation of The Lover's fetishistic theme and their bland reliance on the same superficial hallmarks of Pinter's style (the terse non sequiturs, the meaningful silences, etc.) suggest that the jaunty pastiche way is little better. As the evening unfolds, the repetitive spoofing closes in on us like the walls of a stuffy Pinterian bed-sit.
The problem may lie with the word "Pinter-esque." First coined in 1960 in reference to The Caretaker (the play that turned Pinter into a household name), the term is defined vaguely in the Oxford English Dictionary: "Of or relating to Harold Pinter; resembling or characteristic of his plays." The OED tries to elucidate "Pinter's plays are typically characterized by implications of threat and strong feeling produced through colloquial language, apparent triviality, and long pauses" but the dramatist's works can't be reduced to a shopping list, so the definition ends up sounding redundant. Pinter himself has repeatedly dismissed the labeling of particular dramatic situations or language as "Pinter-esque."
Under these circumstances, the local writers charged with creating original one-acts inspired by The Lover a play that Evans describes in her press release as possessing "Pinteresque qualities in their seminal stages of evolution" face a staggering challenge: How do you respond to a dramatist's work when its qualities have been reduced to bullet points yet remain elusive?
Though thoughtfully directed and performed with waltzlike refinement by Craig Dickerson and Michaela Greeley, Evans' effervescent staging of The Lover only underscores the problem. The director seizes on every opportunity to exaggerate all that might be considered "Pinter-esque." The actors pinch their voices to the point of artifice to bring out the "Pinter-esque" abruptness of the dialogue. The "Pinter-esque" pauses are stretch limousines. And while watching Richard and Sarah fix drinks, open and close the blinds, and put on and take off their clothes once or twice would be enough to imbue their actions with significance, watching them do so over and over again takes the "Pinter-esque" trope of the "loaded gesture" too far. What we're left with is a slickly staged demonstration of "Pinter-esqueness" rather than a slickly staged production of a Pinter play.
Despite such difficulties, one local playwright beats the show at its own game. Scott Munson's metatheatrical, imaginative An Intermission Play succeeds where the other five shorts fail because the author seems to understand the futility of the exercise: He pokes fun at the idea even while grappling with it. Like its fellow one-acts, An Intermission Play is sweetly impertinent about Pinter. (The line "Pinter blows" says it all.) But it's smarter.
In Munson's work, mischievous theatergoers Dan and Linda run amok during the intermission of a performance of Eastenders' "Pinteresque," messing about with stage props, flirting, and wondering if they should stay for the second half. The plot, with its references to "the minnows" (the local playwrights) and "the whale" (Pinter himself), is a hilarious, self-conscious conceit that highlights the absurdity of its own universe. This idea is cleverly emphasized when the characters play a round of a game they call Pinternary ("like Pictionary, only without pictures"), which awards points for using so-called Pinter-esque tropes. As Dan explains: "You get five points for asking a question, 10 points for answering a question with a question, 20 points for saying something irrelevant, elliptical, and yet oddly illuminating. Bonus points are awarded for mentioning adultery, sado-masochistic sex play, or umbrellas." Forget about regurgitating that fetishistic theme by creating characters who get off on playing doctor or berating each other with spatulas; Munson's entire play is a fetish.
The other one-acts here would doubtless score high in a game of Pinternary. But only the short that begins with the words "I hate Pinter" seems to come from a place of respect and love.
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