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 dements.

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 Swiss-watch precision.

"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 assurance.

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 stylish acting.

Copyright 1999 The New York Times Company