A Trip to the Nuthouse With Harold Pinter

About halfway through Ashes to Ashes , which Harold Pinter wrote three years ago, I thought that if I lived with the heroine, Rebecca, I would like to kill her.

To think so halfway through the play, which lasts for only 40 minutes, is, on balance, a rush to judgment and murderous thoughts. It had no connection-I assume-with the excellent and intriguing Lindsay Duncan who originated the role of Rebecca in the West End (and repeats it with confident, dreamlike assurance at the Roundabout’s second home at the Gramercy Theater). No, I would like to kill Rebecca because she would drive me insane. Unless, of course, she’s the one who’s insane. (This is a Pinter play.)

In which case, it would be a race to the nuthouse. And nuthouses, or correctional facilities, happen to be the theme of the Atlantic Theater Company’s revival of Mr. Pinter’s 1958 black farce about mind control, The Hothouse . More about that anon. I’ve enough trouble with Rebecca fantasizing about-or fondly remembering-an erotic affair she had with a sadistic fascist.

“What did you say? You said what? What did you say?” asks Devlin (David Strathairn), her husband, or lover, who I first thought might be her psychiatrist.

“I said, ‘Put your hand round my throat,’” she answers, continuing her description of the fascist’s sinister seduction. “I murmured it through his hand, as I was kissing it, but he heard my voice, he heard it through his hand, he felt my voice in his hand, he felt my voice in his hand, he heard it there.”

“And did he? Did he put his hand round your throat?”

“Oh, yes. He did. He did. And he held it there, very gently, very gently, so gently. He adored me, you see.”

“He adored you? What do you mean, he adored you? What do you mean?”

The need to possess a woman’s past is a Pinter preoccupation. So, too, the threatening memory of an unseen lover. (And those Pinterian repetitions.) Who dominates, who controls or submits-the undertow of tension, evasion and potential savagery-are recurring themes. In Ashes to Ashes , Rebecca’s fascist lover appears first to threaten her husband more than her. Who is he?

We learn he was some kind of “guide.” He adored her; he abused her; she seems to adore him. It then turns out that he was almost certainly in control of a concentration camp. “He used to go to the local railway station and walk down the platform and tear all the babies from the arms of their screaming mothers,” she tells Devlin. Goading him?

Perhaps her weak, possessive husband would like to kill her, too. But my own feelings are less about marital power plays and sexual fascism and more about Rebecca’s surprising, unrelenting smugness. She uses her political conscience as a weapon. Ms. Duncan’s Rebecca possesses the haunting, cool detachment of a sphinx. But at center, Rebecca is unmysterious, even boorish in her arch-identification with the world’s atrocities from the vantage point of her lovely middle-class living room.

Ashes to Ashes links with the political protest and outrage of Mr. Pinter’s 1988 play Mountain Language . His consistent views about the random, sadistic violence of state power go back even further to the 1950′s Hothouse . But, for my taste, Rebecca’s haunted guilt and grief at the brutality of the world flirts knowingly with us, like her thin, semitransparent dress. It is all too self-consciously “poetic”: “When you spill an ounce of gravy,” she informs Devlin ponderously, “it expands and immediately becomes a vast sea of gravy. It becomes a sea of gravy which surrounds you on all sides and you suffocate in a voluminous sea of gravy …”

Pass the gravy. Anyway, that isn’t Mr. Pinter at his metaphysical finest. It isn’t easy, either, to identify with the hallucinatory diversion about whether or not a pen that rolled off a table was innocent. Nor is Mr. Pinter at his wry comic best when Devlin concludes at one point, “If you turn away from God, it will mean that the great and noble game of soccer will be over.”

Ashes to Ashes , directed by Karel Reisz, with an enviably spacious living-room set and English garden designed by Tony Walton, cannot-it’s said-be pinned down. It is supposedly too dense, too visceral, for rational explanation. Such pretentiousness aside, the minimalist 40-minute duologue is ultimately too slight to involve us enough in its righteous message (which couldn’t be clearer): We are all victims of horrible crimes and numbing indifference-unless, that is, we’re the victimizer.

Hothouse is a cross between Kafka and the Marx Brothers and is an old friend in many ways: The Symbolic Psychological Research Center in Which Strange and Terrible Things Happen. It’s a political farce-anticipating, though not equaling, the satirically subversive Joe Orton. (It’s often overlooked that the young Harold Pinter wrote comic sketches for theater revues.) And on a more serious level Hothouse is also an exposé of creepy bureaucratic supremacy-the anonymous, insane power of the state to control minds and make conformists of us all.

Stung by the harsh reception of The Birthday Party in 1958, Mr. Pinter left Hothouse in a bottom drawer until it was first produced in 1980. His biographer, Michael Billington, points out, to our astonishment, that the electric shock scene in Hothouse was inspired by the young and broke Pinter volunteering for psychiatric tests at an Oxford mental hospital run in the 1950′s by the behaviorist Prof. Hans Eysenck. Unemployed actors often volunteered for the shock treatment experiments to help pay the rent. Mr. Pinter was a struggling actor at the time.

He bizarrely knew firsthand how the individual can be “retrained” and dissidence “cured.” But time-and other plays and films, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest for example-have caught up with Hothouse . Still, there are perverse pleasures in its manic bureaucratic rules and nonsense: “Never ride bareback and always send in a report!” “Man to man, you’re not going to take your wee-wee out on me, are you?” Or this: “Are you virgo intacta ?” Answer: “Yes, I am actually. I’ll make no secret of it.” “Have you always been virgo intacta ?” “Oh, yes. Always.” “From the word go?”

There’s even an exploding cigar! The knockabout comedy will surprise those who are more familiar with Mr. Pinter’s later plays of repressed suggestiveness and a slyer comic menace. The younger dramatist is also unambiguous in his nightmare satire of the oppressed individual. Hothouse , after all, is about a society, or “establishment,” in which murder and amnesia are normal. They even forget their amnesia.

The Atlantic Theater ensemble, directed by Karen Kohlhaas, plays the dialogue, not the Pinter subtext. Larry Bryggman does everything brilliantly as the mad boss of the institution, Roote-except suggest the poncey thug under his straitlaced, clubby military facade. A strong, suggestive sexual undercurrent is also absent from the production. Even in early Pinter, menace and desire are found between the lines, as terror can infect the atmosphere silently by stealth.