Is great acting enough?
That's the question I'm left with after seeing Antaeus Theatre Company's latest production - Harold Pinter's "The Hothouse."
There's no question that the acting is great - it usually is at Antaeus but ... well, there's something missing.
Now, to be sure, this is a first class problem to have. It's not often you leave a play and think, my god that was a stellar cast who really, really understands the craft of acting. It's not that there's anything particularly emotionally flashy, no dramatic tear filled breakdowns or tour-de-force tirades - it's just really good character acting by folks who know how to use words. It's the kind of work that you get excited by in an acting studio or grad school.
The question is: is it enough to build an audience?
The play itself is sort of odd. Pinter wrote it back in the beginning of his career in the late 1950's and shoved it in a drawer till the 1980's not sure if it was worth a go (note to artistic directors everywhere: proceed with caution when the playwright isn't sure the play's ready).
It's set in an British institution with patients who don't have names but numbers. Maybe it's a sanitarium? Maybe it's a rest home? It's never really clear what's going on and that's part of the dramatic engine. It's a black comedy about how ridiculous bureaucracies can become. You can feel the absurdist influences of Ionesco mixed with a particular British wackiness.
it's fun and often quite clever but the script is aspiring to something more political and critical and here's where the Antaeus production is on shakier footing.
It's not Antaeus' fault that the same week "The Hothouse" opened an Olympic doctor was forced to confront a legion of women he'd sexually violated - but when Pinter's play jokes about one of the staff, or possibly many of the staff, raping one of the unseen patients - you could almost feel the audience collectively wince. Couple that with a stage full of men and only one female character (who's there basically as a sex object) and let's just say the play is less than tailored for our current political climate.
Now, it's not that every play, or even every classic play, needs to be shoehorned into the narrow headlines of the moment - but there's something oddly, old school British about "The Hothouse" that seems disconnected from the here and now. I'm not really sure why an audience in Los Angeles needs to hear this play in 2018?
Which leads us back to the acting which, like the writing, is fiercely competent ...but that oddly works against the play. I kept waiting for something to happen, for some deep revelation to make the production grab me. Everything feels so competent that you just assume it’s going somewhere significant. In the end, it sort of safely, if absurdly resolves with more fine acting.
Antaeus is lucky. They’re a company founded by great actors.They surely have the respect of the theater community . . . but if they want to build a more significant reputation and audience in their new home, the work will paradoxically need to become less about great acting and more about connecting with audience: because we're more important than their craft.
"Hothouse" plays at the Antaeus Theater Company in Glendale through March 11th.
Josh Clark and Adrian LaTourelle. Photo credit: Geoffrey Wade Photography