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Coupling

Harold Pinter Finds The Funny In Using Sex As A Weapon

AND STAY THERE: Bolton Marsh (left) keeps Timothy Andres Pabon down in The Collection.

By Geoffrey Himes | Posted 2/14/2007

Two By Pinter: The Collection and The Lover

By Harold Pinter

At Rep Stage through Feb. 25

When Harold Pinter won the 2005 Nobel Prize for Literature, the Swedish Academy's Per Wastberg presented the prize by saying, "The need to rule and mislead, the suffocating sensation of accidents bubbling under the quotidian, the nervous perception that a dangerous story has been censored--all this vibrates through Pinter's drama."

That sense of menacing darkness is the usual view of Pinter's writing, and it's accurate as far as it goes. But what's often overlooked is how funny his plays can be. That's the quality that director Xerxes Mehta pulls out of two of Pinter's early one-acts, The Collection and The Lover, now combined in one impressive show at Rep Stage.

In The Lover, for example, a middle-class suburban wife spices up her afternoon tryst with a lover by playing games. First she pretends to be a mugging victim in a park, then a seducer of the park keeper, and finally a kidnapping victim in a locked room. There's something aggressive about the way she and her partner force each other into these powerful/powerless roles, but there's something ridiculous about it as well.

Marni Penning, who plays Sarah, vaguely resembles Tracey Ullman and has a similar gift for transforming herself from a mousy housewife into a terrorizing vamp--for either dramatic or comic purposes. When Sarah shifts from squealing, hand-fluttering victim to slit-eyed, serpent-hissing seductress, the sudden change not only makes us wary of her intentions but also makes us laugh at her pretenses.

It's not clear at first if Sarah is really having an affair or just pretending. And in The Collection, it's not clear if Stella slept with Bill at a business conference or just made the whole story up. Thus these two short plays, which were first presented on British television and then on London stages in the early 1960s, are well matched and form a complete, coherent evening of theater.

For The Collection, the stage is split in two by a stark white line. On stage left is a living room of white furniture on a black floor; that's where Stella and James, married for two years, live. On stage right is a living room of black furniture on a white floor; that's where the older businessman Harry lives with his young lover Bill. Set designer Elena Zlotescu gives the costumes a black-and-white scheme to match.

But there's nothing black-and-white about the action. When James bursts into Bill's house and accuses him of sleeping with Stella, Bill denies it. "I just don't do such things," he says. But James not only refuses to leave; he settles into an armchair and helps himself to some grapes. Then Bolton Marsh, whose angular features are useful in portraying James, pops up and recites every detail of his wife's alleged affair, jutting his nose like a brandished knife three inches from Bill's cheek.

James is not only violently angry, however; he's also attracted to Bill, a young dandy played by Timothy Andres Pabon in an unbuttoned striped shirt and diamond ear stud. Once Bill realizes this, he begins to flirt with his accuser, and the balance of power shifts. This flirting is another weapon in the battle between the two men, but it's also very funny, the way Bill goes from scared to swaggering as James goes from intimidating to uncertain. The sexual aspect of the scene is merely hinted at in the script, but the director and the two actors make it more explicit, making the dialogue both edgier and wittier.

Mehta pushes sex to the surface in every scene. When Harry (Bill Largess) visits Stella (the wonderful Peggy Yates) and scratches the white cat in her lap, the witty double entendre is clear, and so is the air of menace. When his wife confesses, James uses his tolerant, detached cheerfulness as a weapon, leaving Stella to writhe in hope of being touched. When Sarah awaits her lover, she yanks up her nylons, fluffs out her hair, and pushes up her breasts as if she were performing her own foreplay. When her husband, Richard, talks acceptingly of her infidelity, actor Nigel Reed's rigid tension contradicts his words.

Both plays reveal the power games that underlie most sexual encounters. In both one-acts, problems arise when reality infects sexual fantasy and when sexual fantasy infects reality. Whenever human beings say one thing and mean another, their behavior can be both reprehensible and risible. Pinter was after both aspects, and Mehta helps him get them.

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