“The Caretaker” is Pinter at his most elusive, tragicomic best

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Paul Mullins and Isaac Hickox-Young sitting on a bed
The Caretaker: Paul Mullins and Isaac Hickox-Young. Photo by Sarah Haley

The Caretaker is a rich experience in the theater

Paul Mullins and Isaac Hickox-Young standing on stage in a kitchen
The Caretaker: Paul Mullins and Isaac Hickox-Young. Photo by Sarah Haley

Harold Pinter’s 1960 play The Caretaker is generally considered one of his masterpieces. It belongs to the category of Theatre of the Absurd, along with the works of Eugene Ionescu, Jean Genet, and Samuel Beckett. As such, it is a challenge to audiences accustomed to works with defined plotlines and fully explained characters. Yet, for those willing to accept the challenge, The Caretaker is a rich experience in the theater.

The Shakespeare Theatre in New Jersey has taken on the task of presenting Pinter’s play, and they have created a bleak world where no one is as they seem and words have hidden meanings. Artistic Director Bonnie J. Monte has stated she waited to direct The Caretaker until she could assemble the right cast, and this production justifies her vision. Monte has selected three Shakespeare Theatre veterans, Jon Barker, Isaac Hickox-Young, and Paul Mullins, and together they plumb the layers in Pinter’s play.

Paul Mullins, Jon Barker, and Isaac Hickox-Young
The Caretaker: Paul Mullins, Jon Barker, and Isaac Hickox-Young. Photo by Sarah Haley

It is winter in West London. Aston (Mr. Hickox-Young), a man in his early thirties, has brought an older man, Davies (Mr. Mullins), back to the rundown, junk-filled attic room where he lives. They are joined there by Mick (Mr. Barker), a man in his mid-twenties and Aston’s brother. Over the course of two weeks, Davies attempts to divide the brothers and secure for himself the position of caretaker of the house where Aston lives, which is owned by Mick.

The Caretaker does not so much reveal the characters through their stories and rationalizations as it does through their misinformation, silences, and actions. For example, one particularly funny bit of business, in which a leather bag is passed among the three characters, is used to convey a sort of pecking order. Because Pinter does not use spoken language for conveying information, it becomes best for an audience to let the sensations of what’s going on on stage wash over them rather than trying to figure out the play’s messages and meanings while they watch.

The attic set is a masterpiece of cluttered, run-down gloom created by designer Sarah Beth Hall and brought to life through the lighting of Matthew Adelson and the sound design of Karin Graybash. 

The Caretaker, like most Absurdist plays, can be confusing and even annoying to audiences not used to the style. However, Harold Pinter’s  The Caretaker is a masterpiece of modern theater. As such, the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey and Bonnie J. Monte, its Artistic Director, is to be commended for bringing it to the attention of play-goers in the state. For those audiences unafraid of the challenges inherent in Absurdist works and for those seeking to expand their exposure to classics of the world stage, I strongly recommend seeing this production of The Caretaker.  And if you don’t think you’re going to like this play, then you definitely have to go.

The Caretaker is presented by the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey at the F.M. Kirby Theatre on the campus of Drew University in Madison through October 9th.  For more information or to purchase tickets, contact the box office at 973-408-5600 or visit shakespearenj.org.  The theater strongly recommends but does not require the wearing of masks while inside the building.

Allen Neuner is the theater reviewer at Out in Jersey magazine. Jersey born and raised, Allen went to his first live play in 1957 and has been deliriously in love with live theater ever since. He works in the box office at the George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick. He has been partnered to music reviewer Bill Realman Stella, with whom he is also deliriously in love, for over 20 years. They live in an over-cluttered house in Somerville.