Room With a View

Tension builds in The Caretaker.

Before the action begins, you contemplate set designer David Lafont's rendering of a grimy one-room flat, filled with papers, boxes and mismatched bric-a-brac. There's a rolled-up carpet, an unusable gas stove, a toilet seat hanging below the ceiling and a porcelain toilet back leaning against a wall. A tennis racket. A shopping cart. A bucket suspended below a leak. And one shining, golden object: a cheap, gift-store Buddha. As the play progresses, you'll come to realize that every detail is perfect, and that the attention Lafont and Terry Dodd, director of this Paragon Theatre Company production, have lavished on this setting is justified. The flat represents more than just background. It's an appropriate mole hole for sad, befuddled Aston, who thinks he's good with his hands, tinkers constantly with a screwdriver and dreams about building a shed in the yard that he periodically observes through the grimy back window. But the set is also a metaphor for the inside of Aston's disheveled mind.

As the play starts, a leather-jacketed man stands dead center, surveying the space. He turns a slow, full circle. This is Mick, Aston's brother and the owner of the building. At a subdued crashing sound, Mick scuttles out. Aston enters with Davies, an old tramp he has rescued from a beating and brought home.

Harold Pinter's The Caretaker is sometimes characterized as one of the most important plays of the twentieth century; Pinter won the Nobel Prize for literature last year. Many critics praise his loaded and incisive language and talk about the free-floating sense of menace that characterizes his work. Although The Caretaker's plot doesn't entirely make linear sense -- all three characters engage in elaborate self-deceptions, and two of them use language more to confuse than to illuminate -- the play isn't really that opaque or difficult to watch. Moment by moment, you understand exactly what's happening. And what's happening is a constant shifting of power back and forth among the three protagonists -- Aston to Davies, Davies to Mick, Mick to Aston -- that's mesmerizing to watch.

Jarrad Holbrook has a plan for Jim Hunt in The 
Caretaker.
Jarrad Holbrook has a plan for Jim Hunt in The Caretaker.

Details

Presented by Paragon Theatre Company through July 1, 303-300-2210, www.paragontheatre.com
Phoenix Theatre, 1124 Santa Fe Drive

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At the beginning, Davies, who has a large bruise on his forehead, seems grateful to Aston for taking him in, but he soon turns querulous. He needs shoes, he says. He can't get anywhere without shoes: "They're life and death." Aston rummages around and comes up with a surprisingly new-looking pair, buffs them with a cloth, hands them to Davies. They're too small, Davies whines: "You can't wear shoes that don't fit." He becomes more difficult and demanding as time passes, bullying his host and keeping him awake at night by muttering and writhing in his sleep.

When Mick discovers Davies alone in the flat, he knocks him to the ground and batters him with questions. Aston has already told Davies that he can stay on as the building's caretaker. Mick -- who has fantasies of turning the place into an elegant penthouse -- suddenly makes the same offer. Davies starts playing the brothers against each other, betraying Aston to cozy up to the violent, irrational Mick, turning back to Aston when Mick rejects him. It's all provisional: Davies gravitates unhesitatingly toward wherever he perceives the power to be at any given moment. Beyond this characteristic -- and despite the streams of words issuing from his mouth -- you never really know much about Davies. He sometimes uses an assumed name, Jenkins. He says his real identity is contained in some papers he left in Sidcup many years earlier. Jim Hunt, who plays the role, does offer a small clue: He evinces an intense fastidiousness -- and a sense of entitlement -- as he carefully folds his trousers along a non-existent crease, smoothing them over a chair set conspicuously in the center of the room.

Aston and Mick use language in completely different ways. Aston is sparing with words, usually speaking in a quiet monotone -- until he produces a long, moving reminiscence of being shut away in a mental institution and given electroshock therapy. Mick is prone to great, nonsensical gushes of speech, shouted questions and irrational leaps of logic. For him, words are a weapon. But his description of the imagined penthouse, with its tiles and deep azure carpet, touches poetry. There's a fraught moment when the brothers face each other in silence, and you're not sure whether they're about to embrace or offer some familial revelation. Later, it seems that they've silently communicated a battle tactic to each other, a coordinated pincer movement (pincers feature prominently in Aston's electroshock description) intended to evict the tramp whose presence has damaged the charged and delicate equipoise they usually maintain.

All three actors give intense and absorbing performances that acknowledge the play's subtleties and subtext without stinting on its twisted passions. Hunt is an altogether convincing vagrant, and Jarrad Holbrook plays Mick full-out. Warren Sherrill is particularly moving; without ever succumbing to sentimentality, he imbues Aston with a subdued and penetrating sweetness.

 
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