Theater Review: ‘The Homecoming’ absurdly entertaining

René Augesen embodies the sly, sexually-charged Ruth with such unnerving nymph-like appeal, it's easy to see why the role is one of her personal favorites.

The family portrait (from left: Kenneth Welsh as Sam, A.C.T. core acting company member Anthony Fusco as Teddy, A.C.T. core acting company member Jack Willis as Max, Adam O’Byrne as Joey, A.C.T. core acting company member René Augesen as Ruth, and Andrew Polk as Lenny). Photo by Kevin Berne.
The family portrait (from left: Kenneth Welsh as Sam, A.C.T. core acting company member Anthony Fusco as Teddy, A.C.T. core acting company member Jack Willis as Max, Adam O’Byrne as Joey, A.C.T. core acting company member René Augesen as Ruth, and Andrew Polk as Lenny). Photo by Kevin Berne.
In Review

The Homecoming

4.5 out of 5 stars
4.5 out of 5 stars - 'Right on the Money'
Directed by Carey Perloff
Starring Andrew Polk, Jack Willis, Kenneth Walsh, Adam O'Byrne, Anthony Fusco, René Augesen
by Harold Pinter
www.act-sf.org
Review by
The family portrait (from left: Kenneth Welsh as Sam, A.C.T. core acting company member Anthony Fusco as Teddy, A.C.T. core acting company member Jack Willis as Max, Adam O’Byrne as Joey, A.C.T. core acting company member René Augesen as Ruth, and Andrew Polk as Lenny). Photo by Kevin Berne.
The family portrait (from left: Kenneth Welsh as Sam, A.C.T. core acting company member Anthony Fusco as Teddy, A.C.T. core acting company member Jack Willis as Max, Adam O’Byrne as Joey, A.C.T. core acting company member René Augesen as Ruth, and Andrew Polk as Lenny). Photo by Kevin Berne.

With The Homecoming Harold Pinter has us wrapped around his pinky. And for two hours his play, now on stage at the A.C.T. in San Francisco, simultaneously manages to entertain, frustrate, and perplex. In other words, it’s pretty darn magical stuff. It’s also a sharp reminder of the razor-sharp dialog and memorable characters Pinter was capable of penning. I doubt you’ll see any of these dysfunctional personas guest starring on Glee any time soon. I’d die, though, to see Lenny’s father, Max–played at full-on raging bluster by Jack Willis–give it a shot. Singin’ in the Vain!

Leave your sensibilities at the door. This is theater of the absurd. And unlike the purely over-the-top, whimsical material you might get from Eugène Ionesco (think Bald Soprano), Pinter paints a world that is grounded in domestic Brit reality, before slowly layering on the sublimely foolish. It’s hard not to imagine this style of theatrics/performance art not some how inspiring the likes of Quentin Tarantino and Pulp Fiction.

The story concerns an aging, grumpy Dad (Jack Willis) who is most definitely bi-polar, and more than ready to use his cane to keep his meek, limo-driving brother Sam (Kenneth Walsh) in line. Then there’s his sons. Both conniving aristocrat Lenny (Andrew Polk) and struggling boxer Joey (Adam O’Byrne) still live with Dad in a small North London home. When eldest son Teddy (Anthony Fusco) drops in for a surprise return home from America with Ruth (René Augesen), his newlywed of six years, the family and relationships are thrown into disarray. You’re just as likely to see this nuclear unit on Mars as you would in, say, Fremont.

Perhaps the best part of the show was the reaction of the audience. I think at times they were shocked. Many of them were probably also readily identifying with the proceedings. After all, don’t we all have a daughter-in-law that enjoys a good tussle with the boys…?

Directed to perfection by Carey Perloff, you get the sense that all involved here are 110% committed to the cause. In fact, as Perloff notes in the program, she even had the good fortune to work with Pinter in rehearsal; an experience she calls “amazingly invigorating and illuminating.” But, I wonder how it compared to working with Casey Affleck and Joaquin Phoenix in the substantially more absurd I’m Still Here.

Ruth (A.C.T. core acting company member René Augesen) makes her entrance as the men look on.  Photo by Kevin Berne.
Ruth (A.C.T. core acting company member René Augesen) makes her entrance as the men look on. Photo by Kevin Berne.

René Augesen, a ten year veteran of A.C.T.’s core acting company, delivers the best performance I’ve yet seen from her in the past few years since we’ve been covering theater on Stark Insider. She embodies the sly, sexually-charged Ruth with such unnerving nymph-like appeal, it’s easy to see why the role is one of her personal favorites. Sure, the tall blonde package helps. But it’s the slinky moves in combination with an undercurrent of intellect that really helps convince.

We’ve seen other actors here several times before. But with The Homecoming, the roles suit them to a tee. Andrew Polk blows his multi-layered fuse with the best of him when he discovers one of his brothers has intentionally eaten the cheese roll that he had painstakingly prepared and placed in the sideboard. It pales in comparison to the outlandish escapades later as the tart goes for a roll herself on the living room floor with the two sons at the same time while the family looks on.

The impressive set for The Homecoming was designed by Daniel Ostling. Alexander V. Nichols designed the lighting, and Alex Jaeger is responsible for the period costumes. Photo by Kevin Berne.
The impressive set for The Homecoming was designed by Daniel Ostling. Alexander V. Nichols designed the lighting, and Alex Jaeger is responsible for the period costumes. Photo by Kevin Berne.

The set (Daniel Ostling), once again, is yeoman’s work. Picture a Restoration Hardware mash-up involving an Escher print and an episode of Fawlty Towers. The staircase heading up to the second floor–or perhaps the portal to an alternate universe–is the longest I’ve ever seen on a stage. It makes for some memorable ups and downs.

I should also note the costumes (Alex Jaeger) are top notch. The men look frumpy in the morning, chain smoking and kibitzing. In their evening finest, they look bespoke.

Theater is an interesting beast. Sometimes you forget a show immediately, other times it lingers. And in the best cases it creates follow on conversation. Loni and talked about this one days later, and that to me is what it’s all about.

BTW – if you’re still reading this, you maggots … you runts: flake off!

The Homecoming

by Harold Pinter
Directed by Carey Perloff
American Conservatory Company (A.C.T.), San Francisco
4.5 out of 5 stars
Featuring Andrew Polk, Jack Willis, Kenneth Walsh, Adam O’Byrne, Anthony Fusco, René Augesen
Through March 27, 2011
www.act-sf.org

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  • Ben

    I found this production to be very hard to watch because of how little of the layered subtlety and richness in the script was portrayed by the cast. The central character was like “Yell Yell Yell Yell Yell Yell” and this made him completely uninteresting. 2/3rds of the characters were quite simply poorly acted, and as a result the impact of this piece (which has one Tony awards in two decades) was completely gone. I left at intermission out of disappointment. The 1 or 2 good moments were complete drowned by the 10s of minutes of extended dialogue with no believable interactions between the characters. I do not go to live theater in the Bay are often, so I was really hoping to find these show lambasted in reviews. Unfortunately it was not which leads me to believe that this might simply be the best professional theater in the bay area has to offer.

    • @Ben – thanks for the perspective. The beauty of theater is that it can elicit strong reactions. Often polarizing. I thought the acting was among the best I’ve seen at A.C.T. Pinter’s material though, at least I think, is built in this case around unbelievability – absurdity – but is rooted in very human themes – aging, power struggles, loneliness, etc. Not to mention the implications of touching another man’s cheese roll!

  • Greg

    Harold Pinter’s darkly satiric vision of familial dysfunction, gender and class politics relies heavily upon sarcasm, derision and the absurd to make its point. To the extent the use of such devices doesn’t obscure the truth of his observations is ultimately a matter of taste. For it not to fail, however, one’s own life experience must provide some semblance of recognition.

    Of course, the challenge for all the players is to maintain the perfect tone without sacrificing the basic humanity of the characters. This is extraordinarily difficult to do when one is asked to dialogue devoid of any civility and behave in a manner that strains credulity. As such, it’s a unique opportunity for both the performer and the director to show their true mettle.

    Happily, for the most part, they get it right. It’s clear that Carry Perloff has a special grasp of the material and understands how to utilize acting talent, tempo and staging to maximum effect.

    Jack Willis gives the finest performance of his career as Max, the odious, widowed patriarch. Despite disemboweling everyone with his words, he manages to instill an underlying sense of loss, regret and profound loneliness. It’s at once a larger-than-life and finely nuanced performance, and he commands your attention from the first line.

    The four remaining male characters are played with varying degrees of success, each effectively conveying a conspicuous impotence that is painful to watch. Andrew Polk, as Lenny, takes full advantage of his meatier role and somehow maintains a deft balance between the comic and the despicable. He’s very funny!

    Unfortunately, the same skill is not in evidence by the normally dependable Anthony Fusco. As the “homecoming” son, Teddy, his near paralytic reactions suggest he’s as baffled as we are by his cuckold character. Not for a moment did I find him credible at any level.

    And then there’s Rene Augesen, whose amazing talent will not be undermined by an underwritten part. Displaying a remarkable dexterity with the subtle gesture, quizzical expression, and furtive glance, she brings a depth and sexual power to an otherwise inscrutable character. Ostensibly a victim of male misogyny, her motivations are not readily understood until the revelation of the final scene. It’s another winning turn by A.C.T.’s most versatile and reliable core member. Bravo!

    Pinter is undoubtedly an acquired taste, but the insight into human nature and how we treat one another is certainly food for thought and will resonate long after one has left the theatre. And the marvelous acting on display is definitely the icing on the cake. Go see it!

    • @Greg – bravo once again- I think I may need to open a column for you on Stark Insider. Agree on Jack Willis. Wickedly good!

      • Greg

        Thanks Clinton! A column? Hmm. I wonder if deadlines make it less fun? ;-) And I agree, Augesen virtually steals the show.

        • Right- deadlines are never fun. Picture a mouse on a wheel. Then again, there’s nothing as satisfying as when the piece is done. Relax, sit back, and enjoy the moment!