Theater Review: Pinter’s Hothouse Runs Hot and Cold

Robert Salazar

Performed in Little Theater and directed by Honors candidate and College senior Ben Ferber, Harold Pinter’s The Hothouse is set in a poorly run, British mental facility. Although the characters refer to the setting as a “rest home” and a “sanitarium,” the title of the play perfectly captures the production’s restrictive, claustrophobic atmosphere: The Hothouse tells the story of people who are imprisoned by their circumstances and are struggling to develop.

The play opens on Christmas Day, as staff member Gibbs, played by College first-year Brian Gale, breaks unprecedented news to the institution’s loud-mouthed director, Roote (College junior Billy Ferrer). One patient has suddenly died and one has just given birth, with both of the patients mysteriously lacking the proper paperwork. The staff scrambles to find out who is to blame for this administrative error, with most of the staff suspecting the pigheaded, obviously guilty Roote as the culprit. The play ends the next morning, after the staff is massacred in their sleep by escaped patients, an act that is heard by the audience but not seen (save for a blacklight that illuminates blood-stains on the wall — a cool effect). Gibbs suspiciously survives the massacre and inherits Roote’s job, leaving the audience to wonder whether this was his plan all along.

As the accused Roote, the talented Ferrer ranted and loudly defended his innocence with a straight-faced, comic sensibility. It was Roote and the alcoholic, aptly named Lush (Conservatory first-year Rob O’Neil, channeling the spirit of Chris Farley) who got the most laughs throughout the play. In one of the play’s most exciting scenes, the two stormed the stage, pounded back whiskey, and threw drinks in each other’s faces, making a mess on the Little Theater floor. Gale also delivered a solid performance as Gibbs, the straight man with a dark side.

In addition to Roote, Lush and Gibbs, fellow employee Miss Cutts (played by College junior Mora Harris), served as the main female presence in the show, and Harris played the flirtatious Cutts with unrelenting confidence. As Lamb, the institution’s lock checker, College junior Andy Sold cracked his voice with nervous and risible energy, playing epileptic fits to comic effect after Gibbs and Cutts performed an odd (and ambiguously evil) experiment on him.

Indeed, ambiguity was one of the major themes of the play — or maybe an unintended side effect of rehearsal. The actors whizzed through the script quickly, a smart choice for a two-hour play. However, with such rapid delivery it became easy to miss important information. Perhaps this pace was meant to mirror the efficiency of bureaucracy, another major theme of the play. A director’s statement in the program could have served to clarify some of the play’s ambiguities.

In addition to the hurried pace of the actors’ delivery, the formulaic structure of the scenes made it clear that Pinter’s repetitive dynamics might have challenged Ferber. More often than not, they involved characters of lesser spark looking off, perhaps out of a window, as another character stomped around passionately, invading his or her scene partner’s personal space. Roote and Gibbs, Roote and Lush, Lamb and Cutts: Watching the same actors spar off repeatedly was as tiring as watching a game of tennis for too long. Eventually, these scenes all blurred together: still, Ferber redeemed himself by skillfully livening up the spaces in between tennis matches.

In the end, Ferber’s talented cast spruced up The Hothouse, turning it into a well-rounded production. Sarah Gasser, OC ’10, designed a layered set that maximized the Little Theater space by creating an assortment of auxiliary settings around Roote’s well-furnished office. One would hope all Oberlin students would graduate with Gasser’s design talent. Additionally, costume designer and College junior Ellie Philips dressed the characters in costumes (including shining lavender socks!) that would not have been out of place on the set of Mad Men. The impeccably tailored suits complemented the serious elements of the play, as well as its historical context.

To laugh at the comic nature of Hothouse, audiences must agree that there is humor in a leader failing to be the smartest guy in the room. Ferber is a positively prolific director, helming four plays, eight shorts and one cabaret— yet in The Hothouse, his choice of talented collaborators seemed to be the clearest display of all his directing experience. Perhaps selecting very talented people as collaborators is just what the smartest person in the room does.