Harold Pinter's Tony Award-winning play The Homecoming is like an episode of “Jerry Springer.” It focuses on a family. A family with issues. A family ready to come undone as a result of those issues. A family that comes undone in the most unpredictable way.
But unlike “Springer,” there's very little yelling. In fact, Pinter is known for conveying drama with silence and subtlety, where a word can hit as hard as a punch. Maybe harder.
FUSION Theatre Company chose the challenging and rewarding piece to lead off its new season, which opened on Sept. 11. Pinter's play ended its revival run on Broadway in April, and FUSION did well to gain the production rights to perform it here in Albuquerque.
The backdrop for The Homecoming is a large home in North London. Max (John Wylie) is the head of a household of men, his wife having passed away some years earlier. Living with the elderly, retired butcher are his brother Sam (Rick Wiles), a successful chauffeur, and his two sons: Lenny (Demet Vialpando), the insomniac shadow dweller, and Joey (Nick Lopez), the dim-witted wannabe boxer. Into this testosterone-filled abode comes Max's third son, Teddy (Bruce Holmes), an expatriate professor of philosophy who now lives in America, and his British wife of six years, Ruth (Jacqueline Reid).
Teddy's visit is unexpected, but not entirely unwelcome. Feelings of resent and abandonment weigh on Teddy's encounters with his brothers and father, and Ruth's feminine wiles fill another void—exposing a few troubled spots within the couple's marriage. Their visit shakes the household's foundation and steers the seemingly immobile family in a direction that nearly kills the kindhearted Sam and leaves the audience with only a faint idea of what's to become of the characters.
What makes The Homecoming significant as FUSION’s lead in for this season significant is its ability to challenge not only the performers but the audience. Pinter is a master of drama and also bitingly witty. But if the actors don't understand the humor and the audience isn't engaged in the characters, the comedy is lost—it's that subtle. FUSION's cast and crew get it, making this production successful in dark humor.
Director Laurie Thomas filled the bill with a worthy cast consisting of FUSION regulars and a few new faces. Overall, the performance level is above par, with a few exceptions. Wylie's sense of timing is well-used on the cantankerous Max, though it’s hard to believe he’s as old as his character’s supposed to be. Wiles is splendid as Sam, bringing a spark of relative purity to a chaotic household. FUSION newcomer Vialpando immediately establishes himself as a strong presence on stage, playing Lenny as if he were the star of a British cult flick like Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels. Lopez, also debuting with FUSION, portrays Joey as a teddy bear with a violent streak, at the end revealing his true gullibility. It's clear Lopez has to fight to bring Joey out of the dumb boxer stereotype, but overall his performance works.
Jerry Springer should really consider commissioning Pinter to write a few story lines for his family-shattering talk show.
Holmes’ characterization of Teddy is easily the strongest of the production. Holmes is grounded, calm and cool even as Teddy's world shakes around him—an ease that helps Pinter's meticulously crafted words ring through. As Teddy's wife, Reid is equally levelheaded. Reid's execution is flawless, but a fundamental character choice keeps Ruth from fully earning a key moment at the end of The Homecoming. While it's understandable that Reid keeps certain aspects of Ruth's personality in check, that guardedness doesn’t allow hints to a major, life-upheaving disturbance to emerge. The result is a jarring encounter with Lenny that doesn't make much logical sense, leaving more than Pinter's intended confusion lingering at the end of the play.
Pinter is known as much for the silence within his plays as he is for his clever dialogue. Thomas takes advantage of many of these pauses in her directorial choices, creating long breaks between encounters to let tension build—both for the characters and the audience. But in other moments, the actors run over the lines. Whether by direction or nerves, a few scenes are rushed and nuances of Pinter's writing are lost. Ultimately, this didn't hinder the overall production, but it could have done better to highlight the literary beauty of The Homecoming.
Ultimately, this is a terrific first production for FUSION's new season. Pinter plays are like earworms, drilling themselves into your head to be processed and reprocessed. Jerry Springer should really consider commissioning Pinter to write a few story lines for his family-shattering talk show. As far reaching as Pinter's tales go, they hit so much closer to home than anything imagined by Springer's creative team.