KPBS AIRDATE: DECEMBER 31, 1999
If the holidays make you feel fried, why not get Fritzed? Once again, the Fritz Theater goes against the typically angelic seasonal treacle by presenting a devilishly acid-laced dark-comic confection. This year, it’s “The Hothouse,” written, in 1958, by that ever-cryptic British absurdist, Harold Pinter.
It’s Christmas Eve inside a state-run mental hospital. But the real crazies are running the place, which feels ominously and simultaneously like a madhouse and a prison. In this tightly constrained, mysterious world, authority figures are either pompous, malignant or loopy — frequently at the same time. Toadies strive to outdo the boss in faux company spirit. Language is forever on the verge of nonsense; behavior lurches precipitously from obsequious cordiality to deadly violence.
Like much of Pinter’s work, “The Hothouse” concerns the brutality of power, the senselessness of life, the emptiness of language. But in this play, the usual themes are diluted by the rhythms and jokes of farce. At the Fritz, those rhythms are often muted or lost. San Diego newcomer Bob Patterson has directed too broadly, opting either for intense drama or high comedy, underplaying the biting sarcasm and missing the sense of menace and growing paranoia. His production only works in fits and starts.
At the outset, a janitor-type resident sweeps the room and unlocks the two huge metal platforms that later create a sharply confined playing space. This provides a chilling opener to the piece. But the man lumbers to push the scaffolds apart and together after almost every scene, dragging the play’s pace to a standstill. The rhythm is critical, as is the surreal feel of the surroundings, but there is some semblance of a storyline….. Roote, the harassed head of the institution, orders his subordinates to investigate two disturbing events: a male patient has been murdered, and a female patient has given birth. Death and sex are irrational intruders in the perfect order Roote yearns for; both the murderer and the father must be found.
Then there’s a side-story about the sacrificial Lamb (all the names are transparent). Lamb is a naïve and over-enthusiastic new staffer who’s terrorized and martyrized; watch out for flying religious symbolism throughout. Lamb gets fingered, interrogated and tortured by Roote’s henchmen, in a grimly funny, sexy scene that starts out as one of those personality-preference tests so popular in the 1950s and eerily degenerates into something even more awful than that.
The acting in this tight ensemble piece is uneven, but Roote’s deputies are particularly well played: David Radford is excellent as Gibbs, the prissy, coolly unemotional but ultimately unraveling subordinate. And Stan Madruga, too long gone from San Diego stages, is hilarious as the drunkard Lush, a sarcastic sycophant whose relationship with Roote is one of those bizarre master-servant duets Pinter has perfected.
“There’s no room for unhealthy minds at this establishment,” screams the apoplectic Roote. But there’s always plenty of space for them at the Fritz Theater.
I’m Pat Launer, for KPBS news.
©1999 Patté Productions Inc.