'The Room': Theater Review

Courtesy of Steve Gunther/CAlArts
Exquisite performances and keen direction make a difficult play easily accessible.

Despite restrictions by the Pinter estate, the Wooster Group delivers an incomparable production of the playwright's earliest drama.

When Harold Pinter wrote his absurdist debut dramaThe Room, in 1957, it wasn’t intended it to be an easy play. He was rumored to have written it in two days, which sounds easy, and the production requires no more than a couple of chairs and a modest cast of six — also easy. But if absurdism chronicles our inherent drive to derive value and meaning from life when none is to be found, then ticket-holders might expect a long grueling night at the theater. 

Yet while the Wooster Group's embattled but mesmerizing production straddles a startling divide between nervous laughter and lack of reason, it is easier to sit through than one would imagine. Director Elizabeth LeCompte’s influences appear to run the gamut from Chinese folk music (sung in English to the strains of Suzzy Roche’s mandolin) to the patter of Abbott and Costello’s classic "Who’s on First?" routine, as characters pose questions prompting unrelated responses.

Apparently, the only thing more difficult than deciphering Pinter’s unanswered queries and disquieting non sequiturs is obtaining the rights from the late playwright’s estate, as the Wooster Group found out last month when a ban was leveled on reviews (which is impossible to police, as this review attests) and promotion of their 10-show run of The Room in Los Angeles. In addition, the company was forced to cancel plans for a Paris engagement, as well as a return to its home base in New York after tryouts there last fall.

Pinter’s first play opens on Rose and Bert Hudd (Kate Valk and Scott Renderer), who inhabit a dank and gloomy flat only a few degrees warmer than the bitter cold outside. Hudd sits downstage left, reading the news, while Rose flits about to stage directions read in an eerily calm, robotic voice by the dramatically flexible Ari Fliakos, who pulls triple duty in the cast. The group’s longtime leading lady, Valk seems incapable of a subpar performance, as demonstrated by her focused portrayal, which provides an unexpectedly naturalistic conduit through the play’s perplexing narrative.

Bert mostly ignores Rose, or only tacitly responds as she prattles on about the cold weather and speculates as to who might live in the basement of their boarding house, a sorry structure hinted at by Robert Wuss and Max Bernstein’s video projections. There is no explicit warning of what is to come, just Bert’s odd silence, the hostility of the weather and the undisclosed nature of he who resides beneath their feet.

And then comes a loud, insistent knock on the door. But despite Omar Zubair’s ominous music, it's only the elderly landlord, Mr. Kidd (Fliakos again) come to visit, though things become weird again as he reminisces about the early days before they moved in, when their apartment was his bedroom.

Once Kidd and Bert have left, Rose gets a visit from Mr. and Mrs. Sands (Fliakos and Suzzy Roche), a young couple who have come to see about her apartment, which they mistook for vacant. Once Rose sets them straight, they tell her about their encounter in the pitch-dark basement with an unseen stranger.

The pair exit on a sour note just ahead of the play’s second portentously persistent knock on the door as Kidd returns with Riley (Philip Moore), the blind black man from the basement. Rose is rude to Riley despite the fact he has an important message from her father: "Come home." When Bert returns and finds them together, he assaults Riley, pounding him to the floor as Rose shrieks, "I'm blind!" and the play comes to an end.

LeCompte and her cast are loyal to the text while treading a disturbing border between dread and absurdity. And as nonsensical lines are traded with disconcerting self-assurance, even more confusing is the terror LeCompte builds into the silences, counterintuitive rests that brim with Lynchian portent.

As challenging as The Room is, the Wooster Group has made it accessible without compromising Pinter's fearless but demanding writing. The production was intended to be the first part of a planned trilogy incorporating choreography by Mark Morris, and including the playwright’s 1982 one-act, A Kind of Alaska, as well as his Nobel lecture condemning the U.S. invasion of Iraq. But as a result of the conflict with Pinter's estate, plans for those pieces are to be scrapped.

According to LeCompte, the non-profit ensemble company makes most of its money touring, and with the current conflict faces up to $300,000 in losses. In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, she talked about three new pieces she has since been developing, but was hesitant to divulge their titles, lest they stir up a similar fate.

"I don't want to say, because we don’t have the rights," a chastened LeCompte offered, shaken by the unfavorable turn of events. "I'm worried about saying anything."

Venue: REDCAT, Los Angeles
Cast: Kate Valk, Suzzy Roche, Ari Fliakos, Philip Moore, Scott Renderer
Director: Elizabeth LeCompte
Playwright: Harold Pinter
Lighting designer: Jennifer Tipton and Ryan Seelig
Music: Omar Zubair
Costume designer: Enver Chakartash
Sound designer: Max Bernstein and Eric Sluyter
Video and projections: Robert Wuss and Max Bernstein
Presented by REDCAT