The New York Times, March 1, 1999
"Pinter's Dark Side Peeks Through His Comedy "
by Ben Brantley
What's with the boss? He can't get through two sentences without
contradicting himself. He sees murder and insurrection in the blandest
faces of his subordinates. And all those fancy words and phrases he
keeps piling on with such assurance, wallowing in the sound of his
voice: do you think he has any idea what they mean?
All right, maybe so far Mr. Roote, the bureaucrat in Harold Pinter's
"Hothouse," which has been given a bright fever dream of a revival by
the Atlantic Theater Company, sounds pretty much like most of the bosses
you've known. But does your boss pull out a sword to slice a cake that
an employee has just given him as a present? Does he mechanically throw
drink after drink into your face? Does he get all teary and pugilistic
over the issue of whether his mother breast fed him?
Even if he or she does (and it's true, I've heard stranger tales of
corporate behavior), you should undoubtedly make the acquaintance of the
executive now being portrayed with such splenetic savoir faire by Larry
Bryggman in Karen Kohlhaas's expert production of this early Pinter
comedy. As the addled, angry and childishly petulant Roote, Mr. Bryggman
gives a blissful demonstration of how power not only corrupts but
Looking like a hybrid of T. S. Eliot, Colonel Blimp and Arturo Ui,
Brecht's Hitlerian sociopath, this actor makes sense of his character's
nonsense in ways that chill even as they tickle you to the point of
delirium. Mr. Bryggman's Roote is the ultimate clueless man in charge,
his mind steaming ahead on a wayward track of paranoia and mindless
protocol that connects only fitfully with the reality of the rest home
he oversees. It has seldom seemed lonelier at the top.
Of course it's lonely everywhere in the world of Mr. Pinter, where a
failure to connect is the basis of any conversation. You need only sit
through the 40 minutes of his most recent and more solemn offering,
"Ashes to Ashes" at the Gramercy Theater, to see he hasn't changed in
this regard. But "The Hothouse," which was written in 1958 though not
produced until 1980, is an unusually antic variation on the usual Pinter
themes (you know, Fascism, humanity's inhumanity, the unknowability of
people, the slipperiness of memory and language).
This fractured farce, which Pinter shelved after the hostile critical
reception of his "Birthday Party" that same year, suggests that had the
discouraged playwright pursued other directions, he might have
flourished as a member of Monty Python or "Beyond the Fringe." Like many
of their sketches, "The Hothouse" applies the rhythms of old music hall
and vaudeville routines to the darker complexities of the modern world.
It is not, by Pinter standards, a subtle play. (In this sense, it's the
perfect Pinter for Pinterphobes.) Nor, with its jolting detours into
apocalyptic darkness, is it of a whole in the manner of the dramatist's
more mature works. But like the best of Pinter it reminds us of just how
surreal our own everyday reality is, and in doing so it is criminally
good fun. At least that's the case with the Atlantic's highly polished
interpretation, which has a confidence and linguistic ease not usually
associated with American productions of this most English playwright.
Ms. Kohlhaas brings the discipline of a military drill to the unseemly,
frantic goings-on at the play's state-run convalescent home (although
there is some disagreement about whether that is indeed what the
institution is). And every member of the ensemble creates a distinctly
individual comic construct, while clicking right into the overall
"The Hothouse" takes place on one bizarrely warm Christmas Eve. ("The
snow has turned to slush" becomes an exasperatingly reiterated mantra in
the play's second act.) There is no rest, however, for the weary Roote,
who learns that he has confused two of the institution's patients, who
are known only by their numbers, which in this case are 6457 and 6459.
This is especially unfortunate, since one of them has mysteriously died,
while the other has just been delivered of a baby, presumably fathered
by a member of the staff.
The bearer of this news is the officious, steel-spined Gibbs,
beautifully played by Jordan Lage, who mixes sycophancy and
superciliousness into something like a demon version of P. G.
Wodehouse's Jeeves. Other institutional staff members include the
louche, all-too-casual Lush (Patrick Breen); the humble Tubb (Stephen
Mendillo), a Dickensian representative of lower-class workers, and the
innocent, ambitious Lamb (Liam Christopher O'Brien), who of course will
be sacrificed before the evening is over.
There is also the comely Miss Cutts (Kate Blumberg, who seems to have
borrowed Marlene Dietrich's legs), who brings to mind a hard-angled,
cool-headed variation on the naughty nurses of the Ealing comedies. She
appears to be the mistress of Roote and, possibly, of Gibbs, and she is
all ice one minute and all insecurity the next. In this sense she is the
perfect match for Mr. Bryggman's Roote, whose behavior is to manic
depression what pneumonia is to the common cold.
The activities of these mutually suspicious co-workers, which range from
competitive sniping to torture by electric shock, occur against Walt
Spangler's exquisitely appalling set, a model of mid-century clinical
tastelessness. The same sensibility, which somehow achieves parody
without exaggeration, is reflected in Rick Gradone's tacky but hip
costumes and in the radioactive glow of Robert Perry's lighting.
Raymond D. Schilke's sound effects, which include eerily amplified sighs
and groans from undisclosed sources, round out the requisite atmosphere
of evil banality. In contrast, Mr. Pinter's inclusion of scenes of
torture and descriptions of wholesale carnage feel like uncharacteristic
overkill. The play doesn't need them and would probably be more
effective at two-thirds its length.
Fortunately, these moments don't overwhelm the potent joys of the rest
of the evening. Mr. Pinter's conceit of a powerful bureaucracy run by
ambiguous, dangerously capricious creatures isn't new, of course. It was
what Kakfka specialized in, and what latter-day satirists like Paddy
Chayefsky built their careers on. But few artists have rendered the
absurdities of administrative jargon and jingoism with such scathing
Just listen to Roote piously describing his institution's founder: "He
was sanctioned by the ministry, revered by the populace, subsidized by
the state." Or how about his irate response when Lush spits out a piece
of Christmas cake: "You have insulted me, you have insulted the cook,
and you have insulted Jesus Christ." You think people really don't talk
that way? Just turn on C-Span whenever Congress is in session. The
difference is that the Atlantic Theater Company provides much more
Copyright 1999 The New York Times Company