Over 1300 performances by 200 some-odd companies took place as part of this year’s New York Fringe Festival. The two plays I want to mention (presented on a double bill) are The Lover and Ashes to Ashes, both by Harold Pinter. They were presented at the Fringe as a double bill, cheekily called “Pinter Pair.” Both plays feature dysfunctional couples and so they make a cute couple that display nicely Pinter’s themes (alienation, inability to communicate) and the evolution of his style in dealing with them (The Lover is an early work, Ashes to Ashes a later piece).
Ashes to Ashes is, in fact one of Pinter’s final works, by my count his penultimate original drama. Unlike Celebration (his last play) Ashes to Ashes shares the distant, hazy impressionism of Pinter’s Moonlight (written three years earlier.) It is a play that is of interest that never truly becomes interesting. The couple in the Ashes to Ashes, Devlin and Rebecca, have an undefined relationship and indeed too much is undefined in the play. Pinter’s wit, his ability to make our ears prick up, to make an audience believe something is going to happen—it’s all there in Ashes to Ashes. Except by the time the play ends we’re still waiting.
Director Patrick McNulty does a serviceable job with Ashes (last seen in NYC at Lincoln Center’s Pinter Fest in 2000) but it’s his selection of Pinter 1962 shocker, The Lover (not to mention his direction of it) that made this performance noteworthy.
The Lover is revived often in London and occasionally in small regional theaters here in the states; but it hasn’t seen a professional production here in New York for almost 20 years.
Originally written for television, The Lover comes from Pinter’s most fertile period of creation—right in between The Caretaker and The Homecoming. That it’s not revived or spoken of more often is surprising.
McNulty’s two actors, Chris Thorn and Julianna Zinkel, play Richard and Sarah, a suburban couple with what might be politely called “role-playing issues.” Thorn and Zinkel are quite believable and McNulty’s simple, mod set and music selections perfectly set the mood of the outer boroughs of Swinging London.
The Lover is not quite as strong as Pinter’s masterworks from that era—but it feels like it could have been. In some ways it feels like a discarded rough draft for his later classic, Betrayal. Regardless, it’s a Pinter play that’s rarely seen—and one, thanks to the cast and director McNulty, that was worth seeing and not just reading. To me, that’s what Fringe Festivals are all about.