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‘Caretaker’ covers comedy and tragedy of life

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New acquaintance: Jonathan Pryce

For starters, the set — layers of clutter and grime beneath a slanted skylight (designer, Eileen Diss) — is auspicious.

Tom Lishman’s surround-sound effects, of thunderous passing underground trains and cooing pigeons, are equally carefully considered.

The stage is awash in an appropriately dismal gray light (by Colin Grenfell).

Surely this British production of Harold Pinter’s 1960, absurdist tragi-comedy “The Caretaker” onstage at the Curran Theatre will be one for the ages.

So it is.

Aston (a wonderfully guileless, free of affect Alan Cox) brings home a grizzled tramp, Davies (Jonathan Pryce), after a fight in a pub. “I just happen to find myself a bit short, that’s all,” Davies babbles, eagerly accepting a few coins from Aston.

That’s one among a whole series of self-delusional and self-important proclamations from Davies. He’s going to Sidcup, as soon as “the weather breaks,” he promises repeatedly. “I got my papers there”— papers that, he claims, prove his true identity.

In Pinterland, language manipulates, obfuscates, intimidates, coerces, seduces.

In rare and shockingly effective moments it reveals the naked truth.

At all times, words, banal and simple as they are, flow like poetry. In counterpoint, the famous Pinter pauses, used sparingly here, contain unfathomable inner worlds.

Davies settles in as the silent Aston’s roommate, but soon enough Aston’s menacing and dangerously unpredictable brother, Mick (Alex Hassell), arrives.

Power shifts among the three as Davies — who’s casually racist, sly and ruthless — tries to play his cards to his best advantage.

Hopeless dreams abound: the barely functional Aston is going to build a shed in the backyard, any day now. Mick has grandiose plans to turn the flat into a penthouse. Davies fancies himself the building’s caretaker.

Pryce’s performance is a wondrous concoction of puffed-up, offended dignity, bitterness and vivacious good humor. Every gesture, every angle and limb of his body, every word he utters, every facial expression and gaze, is telling: weighted with significance yet somehow also completely natural and organic.

If only Pinter were alive to see how elegantly, how comically and how sensitively these actors, under the astute direction of Christopher Morahan, reach for the heart of the human condition: the desperate need to connect, and the lies we tell ourselves in order to survive.

The Caretaker
Presented by SHN
Where: Curran Theatre, 445 Geary St., San Francisco
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays, Thursdays-Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Wednesdays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays; closes April 22
Tickets: $31 to $100
Contact: (888) 746-1799, www.shnsf.com

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