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."
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