Eve Best, specifically — a chameleon kind of actress bounding back across the pond from Britain, radically made over from the woman she displayed last season — the big-boned, love-starved Josie of Eugene O'Neill's A Moon for the Misbegotten. Now, she slithers back to Broadway as the ruthless, sensually self-propelled Ruth, the honeymooning homewrecker who upends the all-male household she has just married into, turning brother against brother, father against sons, ruling the roost and eventually the rooster.
Four decades have absorbed most of the shocks of the piece, and it can more accurately be seen now as the nasty little comedy it always was — a metaphorical power play that goes so bleak and black it puts the one remotely decent character on stage into cardiac arrest.
"It's a personal thing for me, to try and show different sides of myself," Best admitted at the play's afterparty at Bond 45 — so, when the opportunity presented itself for such an extreme flip-side image-change, she pounced. "Oh, yeah. For sure. I was desperate to come back to New York. This was like an answer to prayers, really. My manager said, 'This offer has come up,' and I said, 'Oh, that sounds good.' He said, 'It's going to be in New York,' and I said, 'Well, I'm definitely going to do it.' I'm really happy to be back."
She sexually steamrolls her way through the play with calculated slowness — almost Stillness — an outlaw among in-laws. "I think the character is very masked. She says little, and it struck me as very important that when she did speak it was very specific. There is a lot going on inside her. As an actress, early on, I would try to make sense for myself what was going on inside her and show that to the people watching — then I realized I was trying to write my own play, and that's not my job. What I find interesting about Ruth is that she is so economical and so still — compared to Josie, who is so big and broad and violent and physical and passionate. To me, this is like exploring the opposite of all of those things."
Mrs. Pinter — the late Vivien Merchant — was the original Ruth and set something of an artistic yardstick in the role, but Best declined a gander. "There was a DVD of it going around, and I nearly watched it. Then I thought, 'I don't actually want to watch it because then I'll have the emotions in my head, and I'd rather come to this completely fresh.' Her performance is so famous and so well thought of that I might find it distracting to have it in my head. I'm longing to see it after we've finished. It's a bit like doing Josie, and having Colleen Dewhurst hanging over you. I knew I could do the DVD of Colleen, and I knew I couldn't watch that, either. I have yet to see it, but I will probably — one day." Like The Homecoming, Ian McShane is back on Broadway for the first time in 40 years. Actually, 40 years and two weeks. He debuted with Ian McKellen and Eileen Atkins in something with Russian roots called The Promise that withered and died in 23 performances. This time he expects to stay around much longer, waving his cane at his roiling brood. "The stick should take a bow as well, I think," he proffered. "He's that kind of character. I love him, and I have a great time doing him. I've a great time every night."
The part won a Tony for Paul Rogers, and another Tony went to Ian Holm as his equally corrosive No. 2 son, Lenny. Raul Esparza, a proven master of seething rage (Comedians, Company, etc.), does the dishonors this time and has a high old time of it playing Unsavory Son. "I'm having a ball," he said. "It's such a fun group of people. We've been through the trenches because we had the strike in the middle there and we kept rehearsing and rehearsing. It's a very hard play, but we had a tremendous director [Daniel Sullivan]. He's one of the clearest, funniest, most straight-forward directors I've ever worked with. He makes you howl with laughter in rehearsal, but he gets things done. It's all about the priority of getting things done. There's no wasted time or anything."
The first time around, The Homecoming and Peter Hall also received Tony Awards for Best Play and Best Director, increasing the pressure to succeed for Sullivan, who has never directed Pinter before but has long been a fan. The years have lessened the brooding menace of the play, he conceded, "although I think there are a lot of things that happen in the play that are disturbing still and disturbs certainly an audience that sees it for the first time. Very often, they're freaked out by what happens in the play. I think it's because Pinter withholds a lot of information. It's like a nightmare that has a kind of logic to it. It seems very real, but you can't quite put your finger on why things are happening."
He kept his actors closely in check, especially Best, who effortlessly exudes a seductive allure. "She sorta came with that," he said. "She came with this sort of wonderful physicality. That's her approach to the role. She took the whole idea of being 'a model for the body,' with a real sensual sense of herself, and used that as a basis for a lot of what she did. I think that's one of the most difficult roles in the play because you have to be so careful what you don't reveal. The mystery has to continue. Actors are constantly wanting to understand who they are and why they are behaving the way they are and to show it. The secret to this play is not to show it. It's really about putting it all together, then forgetting it because you have to play very moment-to-moment when you do Pinter."
The hardest role in the play to direct, he said, is the husband of Ruth, Teddy, who high-roads it, leaving her to the ugly enterprise cooked up by his father and brothers — "the degrees to which he wants her to come home, the degrees to which he wants her to stay there, the degrees to which he wants to get rid of her or be the mother to his children."
James Frain, like Michael Craig before him, is making his Broadway debut in this part, and he's aware of how acute the focus is on him. "You can feel the tension in the audience as they're waiting for something to happen. It's kinda like Teddy's poised to strike, and they're waiting for it and they're waiting for it. It just builds, this tension."
The fact he doesn't strike, or at least doesn't strike the way they're expecting, removes the character from the reality of the situation. "That's what he's trying to do, trying to find some way where he can't be got. That's his way of doing it — he thinks. That's, actually, fascinating to play. It's almost a film kind of thing where you're not speaking."
He gave his director the credit for getting him into the character: "It basically had an enormous amount to do with Dan Sullivan. I think he had, going in, a very clear idea of what he wants and who everyone was. He really let me find it in a way where I thought it was me finding it, but I think, between you and me, he was leading me by the nose."
In the role of the chauffeur/uncle, one degree removed from the ferocious in-fighting done by his brother and nephews, Michael McKean didn't come by his accent as felicitiously as John Normington did originally. "I worked on it," he 'fessed up quickly. "Years ago, I did a film — 'This Is Spinal Tap' — and we had a kinda South London accent. And my Broadway debut was in a play where I did three different accents — one upper class, then one Cockney and then one Brooklyn — that was called Accomplice, in 1990."
McKean enjoyed the rehearsal process on this play and found a connection between his character and the boxer brother, Joey (originated by Terence Rigby and reprised here by Gareth Saxe). "Right around the time we got into the theatre," he said, "I discovered a kinship with Joey. We didn't notice it at first. We had a couple of little bitty exchanges, but we began to realize that we were kinda the two innocents in the room. Joey was innocent, but also venal. I'm innocent but sorta sexless. So we had something that was bonding."
Saxe infected his British accent with an almost audible kind of ignorance, as befitted the thick-witted bruiser he played. "I spent six months in England once when my mother was on a teaching exchange, and I'm, basically, mimicking this guy I heard," he explained. "I really love this part. It goes from Marlon Brando in 'On the Waterfront' to Stan Laurel."
Rigby dropped by the theatre before the performance to extend his best wishes to lead producer Jeffrey Richards. The two of them go back to the original Broadway production when Richards was a go-fer for the then-lead producer Alexander H. Cohen.
According to Rigby, The Homecoming got off to a rocky start: "The notices in London were mysterious and noncommital. When we got to Boston, Elliot Norton gave us a rave, and we did a month there. Then, we came into New York, started previewing on my birthday, Jan. 2 — and opened to reviews that were universally poor, if not bad. "Alexander Cohen called in Peter Hall and told him, 'You could be off in four days.' And Peter Hall said, 'Are you serious? Because if you are I can use my boys back in Stratford.' And Alex said to him, 'Now, look, you can't talk to me like that. You just directed a Broadway flop.' Peter said, 'Yes, I realize that, but I still can use these boys if you let them go.' Well, Alex backed off because he knew, the way producers know these things, that the Saturday Review's notice, which wasn't due out for a while, was a sensationally good one, so he was holding on for that to come out. And while he was waiting the Sunday Times decided to re-review The Homecoming, and it was a glowing report."
The upshot of these late-arriving reviews: 324 performances and four out of five Tonys.
The original production also got a rave from the freshman who was arts editor for the school paper at Wesleyan University — one Jeffrey Richards, now retired from reviewing shows he works on. "The Times, tomorrow, did it for me," he said, very satisfied. "I can't wait to call Harold Pinter in the morning and read him this New York Times review that we have gotten. Harold has been so supportive, and our cast just adores him."
This is Richards' second serving of Deep-Dish Dysfunctionia this season. He's also one of the producers of the critically cheered Steppenwolf import, August: Osage County.
"What I want to do now," he said, "is to invite the three guys in The Homecoming to take out the three daughters in August: Osage County. They'd have so much to talk about."
As it is, Deanna Dunagan, who plays August's rampaging matriarch (and will probably be Best's best Tony competitor this season), was present to give her thumps-up to Pinter's domestic turmoil. "It couldn't be anything better than this," she said of how she chose to spend her night off. "You kinda want to go home and crash, but how could you miss this?"
Yes, she related a lot to all of the cauldron-stirring that McShane does to keep his homefires burning. "My brother saw this play yesterday at the matinee, and he said to me, 'Max and Violet should get together.' I think that Ian and I have a similar task."
Dunagan admitted she is the kind of actress who reads reviews. "You bet. I'm a Gemini. I have to read reviews. We're thrilled — and even more thrilled the audiences every night react the way that they do. Really. But more than the reviews, we have the audience."
Anthony and Charlene Marshall headed the list of celebrity first-nighters. Guests of general manager Albert Poland, both said they enjoyed the show a lot and beamed radiantly all evening.
Also attending: Chris Noth (having wrapped the "Sex and the City" flick), Joan Rivers, Tyne Daly, F. Murray Abraham (who made his Broadway debut in The Man in the Glass Booth, under Pinter's direction, and was in the 20th anniversary production of The Homecoming), Richard Thomas, Richard Osterweil, Roundabout's Todd Haimes and Atlantic's Neil Pepe, superpublicist Nancy Seltzer, Rock 'n' Roll's on-stage-and-off husband and wife Brian Cox and Nicole Ansari, Cherry Jones and Sarah Paulson, producer Liz McCann, Anthony Edwards, Kimberley Guerrero of August, Zeljko Ivanek, Kathleen Marshall, Karen Mason (preparing her two Symphony Space shows, Karen Mason and Friends, for Dec. 22), Andrew McCarthy, Sam Rockwell, August director Anna D. Shaprio, producer-actress Tamara Tunie, The Met's Susan Graham, Annette O'Toole [McKean] and Marian Seldes.