Harold Pinter's "The Lover," a one-act play directed by Shana Gozansky, is being staged with such intensity that it is at once entertaining as it is unnerving. It marks the inaugural production of the Bridge Repertory Theater of Boston, at Deane Hall at the Calderwood Pavilion, through Mar. 17.
Pinter directed the first stage production of his play in London in 1963; fifteen years later the Nobel laureate gave us "Betrayal," another tense and terse play about a love triangle between a married woman and two men, one of whom is her husband. The most noticeable difference between the two plays is that the characters in "The Lover" admit they are unfaithful from the onset; in "Betrayal," we have to piece together the clues.
In Pinter's view, knowing that extra-marital relations are being committed doesn't make living with this knowledge any easier. After all, lying comes with burdens. His characters, lusty men and women trapped in a civilized world, grope with the indignities of communication. It would be much easier to become inflamed and simply walk away. Communication is messy. What makes Pinter's work so compelling is that we get to hear and watch the characters confess their lusty behaviors.
It's a game, like Pinter's favorite sport, cricket. Pinter once commented that cricket is "the greatest thing that God created on earth, certainly greater than sex, although sex isn't too bad either." In "The Lover" we get sex as cricket. Thinking we're at a game is entertaining, that is, until we're pulled into a maelstrom.
The play calls for the actors to take on the double parts of husband-lover and wife-mistress. Joe Short is Richard and Max, and McCaelea Donovan is Sarah. A third character, John (Juan C. Rodriguez) makes a cameo appearance as a ribald milkman (we are led to believe he delivers more than milk to his female clients). The set, designed by Luke Sutherland, effectively pulls the audience (limited to around 60 seats) into the tempest.
The acting is first-rate. As Sarah, McCaela Donovan is a woman in her prime, fully aware of her sexual prowess. She is, at turns, a vixen and a refined married woman, when the situation calls for it. Because Pinter insists in presenting us with potential multiple layers of action and thought, there is particular delight in Donovan’s snarky delivery of specific words. When asked by her husband, if, while entertaining her lover does she ever think of him at his desk "going through balance sheets and graphs," she replies yes, she does picture him, and uses the word "piquant" to describe the sensation she derives from her dual affections.
There are many other surprises, in the use of props - a bongo drum, a pair of shoes, and a creamy bit of pastry - that are lobbed onto the stage as part of the cricket match between the players. The thrill is to not so much keep score but to watch the artistry, to savor the tempo, the tension.
As Richard, Joe Short initially exudes a more subdued sexuality, even as he shares his vulgar definitions of "wife" and "whore," spoken with obvious menace to annoy his wife. He shares these definitions to let us know he considers himself superior in his pandering to extra-marital activities. Later, when he repeats these definitions, he reminds us they are his last ditch efforts to regain control, to win at the game he and Sarah are playing. When he makes his entrance as Max, the lover, he is swarthy, chest partially bared, and eyes sparkling with appetite.
But Max wants to walk away from this arrangement, despite the fact that the pickings of the forbidden fruit are just too easy, too tempting. During his turn at bat, he has to convince Sarah of his repugnance of the entrapments of their liaison. She is too wily, too street-smart to believe it. There is something more afoot - but what? The chemistry between the two actors is electric; it is in their shared direct current we sense the indirect motives behind what they are saying, or withholding.
The play flirts with a range of emotions - jealousy, rage, titillation, repulsion, boredom. Pinter toys with us - descriptions of traffic on the bridge, the heat of the day, the view from a window - which seem innocent at first blush. When we communicate with another, we share mundane details, they help us pass the time. But in Pinter’s world, these details are never casual. The players cast their pearls at swine. They aim their cricket bats to score, to make the other squirm. While they pursue pleasure from acts of sexual congress, they take equal pleasure from these verbal and physical banters. They relish treating each other competitively, dismissively, and, at other times, cruelly.
The reason "The Lover" works so well with this cast is that the players never let us forget we, too, are part of this "piquant" world that’s just too tantalizing to walk away from.
"The Lover," by Harold Pinter, directed by Shana Gozansky, presented by the Bridge Repertory Theater of Boston, is at Deane Hall, Calderwood Pavillion, through March 17. Visit their website for ticket information http://bridgerep.wordpress.com/