It's what you hear, not see, in 'Pinter's Mirror'

KEVIN SPRAGUEMalcolm and Elizabeth Ingram play husband and wife Edward and Flora in ''A Slight Ache,'' the first of the three one-act plays. KEVIN SPRAGUEMalcolm and Elizabeth Ingram play husband and wife Edward and Flora in ''A Slight Ache,'' the first of the three one-act plays. (Kevin Sprague)
By Louise Kennedy
Globe Staff / June 17, 2009
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LENOX - One-act plays, even by an acknowledged master, can be a tricky sell. So Shakespeare & Company has cleverly packaged three by Harold Pinter into a single two-hour program, "Pinter's Mirror."

The three plays - the hourlong "A Slight Ache" (1961), the slighter "Family Voices" (1980), and the even slighter "Victoria Station" (1982) - do have more in common than their one-act structure. The first two were originally written as radio plays, and the third, a conversation between a taxi dispatcher and a recalcitrant driver, might just as well have been.

Everywhere in Pinter the precise use of language is of primary importance; here, with the characters' voices telling the whole story, it's almost all we have. Kiki Smith's set design features a minimally informative seamless backdrop, vaguely evoking granite or fog, along with a few bits of necessary furniture; Megan Moriarty's costumes indicate time and place (1950s Britain) but little else. So we are left, mostly, to listen.

Thanks to the skilled actors here - longtime company members and vocal coaches Elizabeth and Malcolm Ingram, and newcomer Stephen Pilkington - and Eric Tucker's precise direction, that's hardly an onerous task. Still, there are moments, particularly in "A Slight Ache," when the idea of making a radio play into a fully staged production seems an odd one.

"A Slight Ache" begins in familiar, even banal, surroundings: Middle-class, middlebrow Flora and Edward are having a morning cup of tea in their country house. Flora chatters emptily about the garden; Edward grunts and reads his newspaper. A wasp invades the marmalade - a crisis, resolved when Edward grimly drowns it with hot water.

That's the first twinge of something darker, but Flora natters on a bit, until the conversation turns to the silent, disheveled matchseller who's been standing at their garden gate for days. Edward finds his presence unnerving and suspicious; Flora pities him. Eventually, they invite him in - and the darkness, only hinted before, comes flooding in as well.

What, exactly, is going on here is known only to Pinter, and he's dead. But death and the fear of it pretty clearly play a part, as do such trademark Pinter obsessions as male insecurity and bluster, female maternalism and coquetry, and the ineluctable threat of decay. Did I mention it's a comedy?

It is, actually, though it's a Pinter comedy, so no laugh lands without pain. The Ingrams deftly negotiate Flora's and Edward's delicate disintegration - Flora's twisted flirtation with the matchseller is particularly funny-creepy - and Pilkington, mute and masked in a balaclava, provides an appropriately spooky presence as the matchseller.

But how much spookier it must have been in the radio version, when the audience couldn't even know if the matchseller actually existed or was just a figment of the couple's mutual and individual madnesses. To see a specter made flesh inevitably dilutes its power - and it doesn't make it any easier to figure out what's real, what's delusion, and what's shared storytelling.

Pilkington gets a chance to speak up, and how, in the next piece, "Family Voices." An eager, chirpy young pup with a distorted sense of both himself and the world, his character - identified only as Voice 1 - is writing letters to his mother, Voice 2, while his father, Voice 3, remains almost silent. Mother meanwhile is writing to son, too, but it quickly becomes apparent that each is failing to receive, or at least to acknowledge, the other's letters. Relations grow increasingly hostile, to not much effect. Another comedy, of course.

As for "Victoria Station," it's visually the darkest and thematically the lightest of the three. A controller (Malcolm Ingram) tries to get a driver (Pilkington) to pick up a fare at London's Victoria Station, but the driver unaccountably refuses to budge from the Crystal Palace. Antic argument ensues. Of course you could read it as existentialist metaphor, somehow, but it feels more like an absurd sketch than a profound commentary.

Then again, maybe in Pinter's world there's not much difference between the two.

PINTER'S MIRROR Three one-act plays by Harold Pinter: "A Slight Ache," "Family Voices," and "Victoria Station" Directed by: Eric Tucker. Set, Kiki Smith. Lights, Greg Solomon. Costumes, Megan Moriarty. Sound, Michael Pfeiffer.

At: Shakespeare & Company, Elayne P. Bernstein Theatre, Lenox, through Aug. 2. Tickets, $12-$48, 413-637-3353,

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