Don't Pause...Go

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This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA theater for KCRW.

Harold Pinter's The Homecoming, currently being revived by Pacific Resident Theater, is a tough play to do right.

Chances are even if you only walked by a drama class in college, you've got a copy of the paperback on your bookshelf staring back at you. Without cracking it in years, you remember - like Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? , written two years earlier - that something nasty happens in the final act.

Or maybe, like me, you're lucky and remember John Lahr's quintessential commentary in the New Yorker that presciently foreshadowed Harold Pinter's own death. Mr. Lahr wrote,

"The Homecoming changed my life. Before the play, I thought words were just vessels of meaning; after it, I saw them as weapons of defense. Before, I thought theater was about the spoken; after, I understood the eloquence of the unspoken. The position of a chair, the length of a pause, the choice of a gesture, I realized, could convey volumes."

That's daunting praise, if like Pacific Resident Theatre, you're thinking of mounting a production of one of Pinter's best. It's with that same trepidation that I went to see The Homecoming: I've sat through more than my fair share of horrid Pinter pauses.

Yet, I had hope. Guillermo Cienfuegos, who directed one of my favorite shows of last year - the beautifully spare Henry V at PRT - was at the helm. The cast looked promising . . .

I'm happy to say the risk paid off. The production is frightening, funny, profound, and most importantly does honor to Pinter's "muscular" language.

Stylistically, it's a straight-forward journey back to the darkness of 1960's North London. Thanks to some inspired costuming by Christine Cover-Ferro, we instantly feel a sense of place. The set, while simple, provides the arena for the battle of words that's about to erupt. All the key elements that you remember are there: the chair, the gaping hole of the removed wall.

The cast manages to fulfill your memory of the characters without succumbing to those limitations. As Ruth, the role originally played by Pinter's own wife, Lesley Fera is powerful and appropriately inscrutable. Jason Downs is a suitably slimy and intimidating Lenny. To a person, it's beautifully cast.

Time has been kind to The Homecoming. The initial shock has given way to a more complex appreciation. The humor is more accessible, the gender politics still disturbing if not quite as shocking. Pinter's ambiguity sneaks up on us now. The conflicting versions of reality strike us as little more than family bickering until we find ourselves completely unmoored and wondering "what the hell is happening?"

My one quibble, and it is a quibble, is with the ending. To be fair, I've never seen a production that's really nailed it. But I can't help feel like there's something more there. The play and this production are so finely crafted, I long for one more guttural punch at the end: something that takes my breath away.

If you love Pinter, or just really good drama, don't miss this one.

The Homecoming plays at Pacific Resident Theatre in Venice through July 26.

This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA theater for KCRW.

Running time: 2 hours and five minutes with one intermission.

Photo: Ashley Boxler