With Pinter, three’s scary company

John Kuntz (left) is Aston and Michael Balcanoff plays Davies in “The Caretaker.’’ John Kuntz (left) is Aston and Michael Balcanoff plays Davies in “The Caretaker.’’ (Elizabeth Stewart)
By Sandy MacDonald
Globe Correspondent / October 9, 2009

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Over the past half-century, we’ve had ample opportunity to become acquainted with the hulking menaces that Harold Pinter came to specialize in. Indeed, the playwright’s very name has become synonymous with an aura of vaguely looming threat. What’s especially intriguing about the Nora Theatre Company’s revival of his 1959 play “The Caretaker,’’ under Daniel Gidron’s direction, is the prominence given a recessive figure, played against type by ubiquitous actor-about-town John Kuntz.

Aston is a meek and tidy tinkerer who, for reasons never quite made clear, opens his home - indeed his very bedroom, a junk-strewn jumble - to a ragged old roustabout (Michael Balcanoff) who seems to have missed the memo that beggars can’t be choosers. From the get-go, this scrofulous object of charity - who ascribes his financial straits to the use of an assumed name - tries to cage ever greater largesses. Davies’s opening rant is about “them bastards at the monastery’’ who not only wouldn’t make good on the promise of shoes (“It’s life and death to me!’’) but were mingy when it came to a meal (“A little bird!’’). His situation couldn’t be more dire, and from the looks of him, he’s been mired in it for quite some time. However, this self-aggrandizing braggart of a mendicant is picky, his squinty, rheumy eyes fixed on the main chance.

It’s hard to guess what’s going on with Aston: Kuntz quietly clenches his fists from time to time, and has a tendency to zone out, like a clock winding down. He’s damaged, surely, and we’ll learn his story soon enough. But first, in his absence, another figure intrudes: Mick (Joe Lanza), one of Pinter’s trademark sociopathic thugs, as glib and fanciful as he is fearsome. (Lanza’s basso profundo bellow will churn your very bone marrow.) Mick’s first move is to attack the old man. Only after he has Davies cowed and cowering in the corner does he inquire, mock-politely, “What’s the game?’’

The ensuing two acts will leave you pondering much the same question. In this round of monkey-in-the-middle (which the three men actually enact in a tussle over Davies’s pitiful bag of belongings), the rules are constantly shifting. It’s evidently fine for Mick, for instance, to deride Aston - his elder brother - for lacking a work ethic. However, when Davies echoes the criticism in a bid to curry favor, Mick chides him with almost Victorian primness: “That’s a bit of an impertinent thing to say.’’

It seems inevitable that the two peculiar siblings will eventually close ranks, but that doesn’t prevent Davies from bargaining, empty-handed, to the very end.

The audience, similarly, is left pondering a handful of chimeric questions. Does the sadistic, manipulative Mick, with his boasts of being a man on the move (he has a van), actually function in the outside world? (A scary prospect.) Will Aston ever build the tool shed that he views as the necessary first step toward fixing all the broken objects in his orbit, his own brain included?

Aston is the quietest member of the trio, but in Kuntz’s deft, understated handling, he imparts an indelible impression, like the outline left on the pavement by a dying leaf. Balcanoff is simply brilliant as the blustery, ego-blinded Davies, and Lanza does Pinter proud in conveying Mick’s off-kilter killer instinct.


Play by Harold Pinter

Directed by: Daniel Gidron. Set, Janie E. Howland. Lights, John Malinowski. Costumes, Jacqueline Dalley. Produced by the Nora Theatre Company.

At: Central Square Theater, through Nov. 1. Tickets: $35. 866-811-4111,

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