When the American Conservatory Theater curtain rises to reveal the slightly angled set — a dimly lit, cavernous room, so dingy you can almost smell the mildew; an imposing staircase leading to unimaginable activities above — you know you’re in vintage Pinterland, that slightly seedy place where human relationships are glimpsed in midstream, unpredictable and ominous.
And when Jack Willis as Max, the retired butcher, in an apron and cap and clutching a cane, blurts his first venomous harangue to his son, Lenny (a wonderfully oily, smirky Andrew Polk), there’s no doubt, in my mind anyway, that this is a Harold Pinter play as it was meant to be seen: funny, menacing, ultimately — and
intriguingly — baffling.
Max, Lenny, Lenny’s aspiring boxer younger brother, Joey (a gangly and deceptively innocent Adam O’Byrne) and Max’s limo-driver younger brother, Sam (a resolutely sunny Kenneth Welsh), inhabit this dreary North London house (impressive set by Daniel Ostling).
The presumably chronic power plays among the four men shift considerably when Max’s middle son, Teddy (a mild-mannered, repressed Anthony Fusco), arrives for a short visit — the “homecoming” of the title — from America, where he’s a philosophy professor.
He’s brought with him his wife, Ruth (René Augesen, blond and sinuous, with the disconcertingly intense and affectless gaze of a panther stalking its prey). The family had not known of her existence previously, and Max promptly orders the slut’s removal.
Everything that happens after Ruth’s arrival is unexpected, as Max, Lenny and Joey circle the alluring newcomer, who increasingly demonstrates a none-too-savory agenda of her own.
“Where’s the whore?” roars Max, stomping into the room in Act 2. “She’ll make us all animals!” Here in Pinterland, humans often resemble beasts in their cunning, in their desperate, amoral maneuvering; like cats with mice, they sometimes seem sadistic by nature.
Under Carey Perloff’s knowing direction, “The Homecoming” races along, the dialogue and the seemingly oblique monologues bristling with subtext. Perloff is judicious with the famous Pinter pauses, so that when they do occur, they’re shocking and significant.
Just as in real life, you wonder what everyone really means by what they say, and what precisely they’re feeling at any given moment. And just like in real life, it’s impossible to truly know. This superb cast, so well supported by the design elements and by Perloff’s deep understanding of Pinter’s darkly comic sensibility, makes for a thrilling and disturbing theatrical experience.
Where: American Conservatory Theater, 415 Geary St., San Francisco
When: 8 p.m. most Tuesdays-Fridays; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays; 2 p.m. most Sundays; closes March 27
Tickets: $10 to $85
Contact: (415) 749-2228, www.act-sf.org