REBEL WITHOUT A PAUSE

Harold Pinter is arguably the most influential English dramatist in the second half of the 20th century. Traces of Pinter's spare and oblique dialogue can be found in the works of Edward Albee, Tom Stoppard, Arthur Kopit, Sam Shepard, David Mamet and John Guare. Pinter spent the first ten years of his career in the theatre as an actor before he wrote The Dumb Waiter in 1957, a one-act play that immediately signaled his very original voice as a playwright.

The following year, The Birthday Party established Pinter's credentials in the full-length format, and, in 1959, his stunning masterpiece The Caretaker placed him at the top of contemporary writers on both sides of the Atlantic. Since then, the haunting Old Times, the mysterious No Man's Land and the innovative Betrayal have provided the high points in a body of work that will assure his place in theatre history.

Pinter's importance is not readily evident in Other Places, now on view at St. George Actors Showcase. A collection of three one-act plays written in 1984, Other Places reveals a Pinter who has moved on from the stylistic mannerisms for which he is known. In these plays, the famous "Pinter pause" is virtually absent, replaced by a steady stream of dialogue more reminiscent of his own influence, Samuel Beckett.

These two masters of the absurd provide an interesting contrast in technique. While Beckett is fascinated with the existential dilemma of the human being in an uncertain universe, his method is that of a classicist. Beckett's bleak landscape provides a framework for an inexorable progression to a conclusion.

Pinter, on the other hand, is boldly adventurous in form, exploring existential thought in a technique that is as chaotic as his subject. One can sense that Pinter frequently has no idea when he begins a line of dialogue where it will take him. The result is a journey of surprises that is inevitably both ominous and funny.

Victoria Station is the brief curtain-raiser in this trio, and it is essentially little more than a skit of the sort we might expect to see on Saturday Night Live. A taxicab dispatcher is trying to arrange for one of his drivers to pick up a fare at London's Victoria Station, but he encounters a Rod Serlingish response over the radio that suggests the taxi may have been taken over by an alien from outer space. This ominous image is spooky and funny, but, ultimately, rather pointless.

As performed by Bob Keyes, the comedy is milked at the expense of the examination of isolation that one suspects might have intrigued Pinter. Although he speaks of the cold and wears a plaid muffler around his neck, Keyes never attempts to create the chill of the drafty dispatch office, so the piece remains more skit than play. Keyes makes no attempt to suggest a British accent, so it is hard to credit the circumstances that are suggested, and the Britishisms of both psychology and diction remain incomprehensible.

The second piece is called Family Voices, and consists of two interlocking monologues, spoken by a son and his mother as if corresponding to each other. A third character, the father, appears and takes notice of both, but finally confides in us that he is, in fact, dead, so interaction is impossible.

These speeches are spoken with a realistic phrasing, but with such inadequate enunciation that it was difficult to hear and comprehend much of the dialogue over the gentle roar of the air conditioner. What I could understand of Brian Gilbert's monologue as the son piqued my curiosity. Gilbert has a charming, easy stage presence that should be exploited in a play where he could develop relationships to other characters. A Kind of Alaska is an oddly realistic attempt to dramatize a phenomenon documented in the writings of Dr. Oliver Sacks in his book Awakenings. Here, Pinter introduces us to Deborah, a woman lying in a hospital bed, beginning to awaken. Nearby sits Hornby, her doctor. Hornby has given her an injection that has allowed the woman to break through the depths of her coma into consciousness after a nap of some 29 years.

She is completely unaware of the passage of time. The result is that we experience a middle-aged woman who talks and behaves like the teenager she was when she lapsed into sleep.

In the interim, of course, her parents and a sister have died, although she is told that they have gone on a long trip. Her remaining sister, Pauline, arrives in the hospital room, and we learn that she has married the doctor.

This is just the strange kind of reality that Pinter would have invented if God had not already beaten him to it. It is nevertheless a fascinating situation in which Pinter can recognize the kind of absurd conditions that give our existence such mystery and loneliness.

Cherie Donahoe is touching as Deborah and Don Erickson is compassionate as Hornby. Patti Suarez makes sister Pauline enigmatic and estranged in a way that makes Deborah's situation seem more desirable than ordinary reality. At the end of the play, Deborah appears to resume her sleep.

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