|Stephen Russell and Rachel Harker play two very different pairs in "The Lover" and "Ashes to Ashes."|
WATERTOWN - A simple suburban living room bristles with emotional undercurrents. Welcome to the world of Harold Pinter, brought to devastatingly vivid life in the New Repertory Theatre production of "A Pinter Duet: The Lover and Ashes to Ashes."
Director Rick Lombardo has mounted this pair of one-acts, which he first presented at Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater in 2005, with the audience on either side of the stage. The effect is that viewers come even closer to these two couples, both played by Rachel Harker and Stephen Russell, so we catch every aside, every grimace, and feel even more intensely that we are voyeurs to these intimate domestic scenes.
The evening becomes a showcase for Harker (Lombardo's wife), whose nuanced work - creating two distinct, fully realized women - is a wonder to behold. Her girlish trills and playfully sexy games in "The Lover" contrast dramatically with the devastated woman in "Ashes to Ashes." Russell is the perfect foil, subtly supportive and then commanding in "The Lover," gently puzzled and ultimately helpless in "Ashes to Ashes."
In "The Lover," written in 1963, Pinter toys with the notion of marital desire and deceit, turning one couple's efforts to spice up their marriage into a dangerous game of aggression and control. When the play opens, Sarah is taunting her husband, Richard, with talk of an impending visit from her lover when Richard will be at the office. The flick of a feather duster and the doffing of a bowler hat feel loaded with menace and mystery, and it isn't long before the tables are turned.
"The Lover" builds beautifully to its terrifying crescendo, and although the focus is on a psychological battle, Pinter leaves room for lovely touches, including a pair of red high heels and the use of blinds at the window. Sarah wears the pumps for her trysts, but forgets to remove them when Richard returns home, an unforgivable lapse, while the blinds become a metaphor for their essential need to separate one aspect of their relationship from another.
"Ashes to Ashes," written more than 30 years later, reflects a similar disintegration of a relationship, but here it is less about power and more about loss. Harker, now playing Rebecca, curls up in a chair, almost in a fetal position, while her university professor husband, Devlin (Russell), interrogates her about her past with increasing frustration. Simple questions like "How was your day?" elicit eerie responses that at first suggest she's had a violent relationship with another man, then evolve into increasingly disturbing anecdotes of people walking into the sea and babies torn away from their mothers.
The stage for this one-act includes several pieces of furniture covered by cloths, as if the two are meeting after a decision has already been made about their future. The idea that the relationship might be over brings more poignancy to Devlin's efforts to communicate and connect with Rebecca, and a greater detachment to her responses, especially when she says, "We can't start again. But we can end again."
As Rebecca blurts out her increasingly nightmarish anecdotes, she seems to become the conscience for a world filled with atrocities, an empathy Devlin can't begin to comprehend.
Two luminous performances, under Lombardo's crisp direction, make this "Pinter Duet" a powerful evening of theater.