In Imago’s ‘The Lover,’ let the games begin

Anne Sorce and Jeffrey Jason Gilpin are trapped in Pinter's erotic game

At one point toward the end of one of the little scenes in Harold Pinter’s “The Lover” at Imago Theatre Thursday night, Anne Sorce pauses, does a slow little pirouette, and looks out at the audience with a little smile on her face, before the blackout ending the scene. And I wondered, sitting on the top row looking down on the production: What if you filled all of Pinter’s famous “silences” with…dancing.

It so happens that this look of satisfaction is the last time we feel that Sarah (who is played by Sorce) has the upper hand in her relationship with her husband Richard (Jeffrey Jason Gilpin). But as soon as I typed that “upper hand,” I wanted to withdraw it. The relationship games, the role-playing games, that Richard and Sarah play have “winners” and “losers,” I suppose, but they are just games. And their aim isn’t to create Top Dogs and losers, but to kindle the erotic connection and maybe something beyond that between Richard and Sarah. So, in this game, they both win or they both lose. And honestly, losing looks like the most probably outcome.

Well, I certainly plunged into the middle of that one, didn’t I? Let’s backtrack a bit and get our bearings.

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Anne Sorce and Jeffrey Jason Gilpin in Harold Pinter's "The Lover"/Imago Theatre

Anne Sorce and Jeffrey Jason Gilpin in Harold Pinter’s “The Lover”/Imago Theatre

Pinter wrote the one-act “The Lover” in 1962, part of his early burst of “Comedies of Menace” in the late 1950s and early 1960s, those deliciously dark, transgressive, confusing plays that made “Pinteresque” an adjective describing non-theater events. And like “The Caretaker” (which Imago will produce early next year with Allen Nause) or “The Homecoming” or “The Birthday Party,” it can be played as a comedy (farcical or black, take your pick) or as a bitter sort of drama, depending on how you want to interpret it.

Director Jerry Mouawad discussed the possibilities of “The Lover” with Sorce and Gilpin. Here’s what he told ArtsWatch’s Bob Hicks:

“We picked a possible interpretation of how this particular couple got to this particular position. I’ve chosen one (interpretation) that I thought had the highest risk for the characters.”

He didn’t explain that interpretation to Mr. Hicks, but having seen the show, I’d say he starts it out a little on the comic side and then pirouettes—a little like Sorce does—and starts down a road that gets increasingly melodramatic and desperate for the characters. That’s because Richard starts making noises that indicate he doesn’t want to play the game any more at all. And then what’s left?

Pinter answered that question in an essay he wrote around the same he wrote “The Lover”:

We have heard many times that tired, grimy phrase: ‘failure of communication’ … and this phrase has been fixed to my work quite consistently. I believe the contrary. I think that we communicate only too well, in our silence, in what is unsaid, and that what takes place is a continual evasion, desperate rearguard attempts to keep ourselves to ourselves. Communication is too alarming. To enter into someone else’s life is too frightening. To disclose to others the poverty within us is too fearsome a possibility.

If we think of “The Lover” in this context, the erotic games, their verbal and physical sparring, are a mutual agreement by Richard and Sarah, a substitution for real disclosure that in fact really discloses both their emptiness and their need to keep it hidden. And this production plunges right into the desperation: Their need to continue to play-act! To play a role. To give their lives a false coherence around the characters “lover,” “mistress” and “whore.”

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I make the case for Mouawad’s choice here maybe because I think that a more comic choice would have gone down much more easily for his audience. That route is easy to imagine, especially with Sorce on board. She’s shown she can do arch comedy in both “Beaux Arts Club” and “The Black Lizard” at Imago, and there’s no doubt she could give us a sly Sarah who NEVER reveals a true emotion. And Gilpin could play the possible dissolution of the game as PART of the game. In short, “The Lover” could be a lot softer than this version, a direction that a lot of productions go with material this hard.

Sarah: Are you playing a game?
Richard: I don’t play games.

That could be a great laugh line. All Sorce had to do was turn gracefully toward the audience and give us that little smile of hers. Treated seriously, as an honest reflection of Richard’s thinking about himself, it’s intelligible only if we assume that he understands that the erotic game they are playing is truly all they have. Dissolve it and more than the game ends. Mouawad and his cast take Richard’s threat to end the game seriously and that generates the desperation that unsettles Sarah.

“I think things are beautifully balanced, Richard,” she says right before that dancerly pirouette earlier in the play, and the rest of “The Lover” serves to knock her off that center. Sorce represents that physically; each time Richard (or his alter-ego Max) knocks her down, she has rise and re-set herself on her (often) high heels. By the end, this is a slow, deliberate re-centering, as though she needs time to gather her energy to keep the survival game going a little longer.

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Anne Sorce and Jeffrey Jay Gilson play the bongo and each other in "The Lover"/Imago Theatre

Anne Sorce and Jeffrey Jay Gilson play the bongo and each other in “The Lover”/Imago Theatre

Yes, Sarah takes a few falls.

“I must say I find your attitude toward women alarming,” Sarah says to Richard, and a feminist criticism of “The Lover” is possible, especially the way this one plays out. Richard threatens to end it, Sarah pleads for him not to (“You’re doing your best to ruin the whole afternoon”), he launches into a giant rant built around her alleged boniness, and stays in a corrosive place until the very end. While she plays “Mistress and Lover,” he plays “Whore and John.” She talks admiringly of her “Lover”; he disparages his “Whore” (“I’m very well acquainted with a whore, but not a mistress,” he says).

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SPOILER ALERT! Skip down to the next section if you want to avoid a central “reveal” of the plot.

(I’m assuming you’ve figured this out, right? Richard is also Max, Sarah’s lover; Sarah is Richard’s “whore.”)

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Fifty years later, do we want to make the argument that Pinter in 1962 was insufficiently feminist? That he had his thumb down on the “male” side of the scale? Well, yes, for me, maybe so. Pinter’s point is about the existential condition of humans or rather the extent they will go to avoid that condition. As self-composed as Sarah can be, her condition is somehow worse than Richard’s, and frankly, I wanted her to take off one of those high heels and clock him in the head with it. (Not that I believe that violence solves anything!)

“You can’t get out, darling—you’re trapped.” I think Richard says this, and it is a good commentary on how the games we play come to own us, how we are stuck with their formulations and their roles.

Back to that essay by Pinter:

“I am not suggesting that no character in a play can ever say what he in fact means. Not at all. I have found that there invariably does come a moment when this happens, when he says something, perhaps, which he has never said before. And where this happens, what he says is irrevocable, and can never be taken back.”

Is this one of those moments? I think it might be, and in the context of the play and the Imago production, it also suggests that Richard is trapped, too. Richard and Sarah are stuck in “The Lover” until it ends. The playwright has trapped them there. The resolution of their tension will have to come from the game, from the lines they are dealt. They are truly trapped. And so, in this, they are equals, Richard and Sarah.

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Will you love “The Lover”?

I have no idea, of course. I enjoyed watching Sorce and Gilpin find their way around the simple set on the Imago stage. I’d never seen a production of “The Lover,” so I was happy to see one. I was surprised by the tack Mouawad and company took with it, toward the near-melodramatic, but once I thought about it, I found it defensible.

And I don’t think it’s a play you “love” in any case. It should leave you a little uneasy, shouldn’t it? About the fictions we employ to make ourselves comprehensible to ourselves? About the places we’ll do almost anything to avoid? And how that’s funny in a mordant sort of way? Sounds virtually Pinteresque.

One Response.

  1. Martha Ullman West says:

    This review makes “The Lover” sound so much like a two-character, and, blessedly, shorter “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” that I just looked up the premiere dates of both plays. It’s the same year, 1962, which may or may not be significant. A very interesting review indeed and I’m eager to see “The Lover”, already have my ticket.

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