Review: Necessary verbal ruthlessness is in short supply in this rare Harold Pinter revival

Few playwrights of the modern era have captured the paradox of human nature with as unsentimental an eye as Harold Pinter, who depicted in curiously menacing comedies the precarious balance between civility and savagery that marks our species.

“A Slight Ache,” his 1959 short play that was originally conceived for radio, is rarely seen in these parts. I’m not sure if I’ve ever attended a professional production in all my years of tracking the work of this cunning British dramatist, who, in the words of fellow playwright David Hare, "cleaned the gutters of the English language, so that it ever afterwards flowed more easily and more cleanly."

That was all the incentive I needed to check out the visiting production at the Odyssey Theatre. This tightly constructed three-character play follows the Nobel Prize-winning playwright’s characteristic method of introducing a stranger to a domestic situation that quickly unravels as territorial instincts are unleashed to an extent that seems wildly disproportionate to the banality of the threat.

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What distinguishes “A Slight Ache” from “The Room,” The Birthday Party” and “The Dumb Waiter” — three plays from the same early period — is that it’s the bourgeoisie, not the proletariat, under mounting inexplicable pressure. The home is an affluent one, with a flourishing garden, a pool and a back gate.

The occupants of this gracious country home, Flora (Susan Priver) and Edward (Henry Olek), are a long-married couple. The state of their relationship can be discerned in the way they interact over breakfast in the garden. He reads the newspaper defensively while she noisily stirs her tea and scrapes her toast.

Flora asks if Edward has noticed the honeysuckle. The question startles him. He assumed the flower was called something else. Words matter in Pinter — nouns, especially. They lay claim to tangible reality. Whoever names, controls. No wonder conversation is such a violent sport in his plays.

The arrival of a wasp at the table foreshadows what’s to come. Flora, in a state of panic, begs Edward to deal with the matter. He traps the creature in a pot of marmalade and takes perverse pleasure in inflicting a slow, painful death.

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His manhood temporarily restored, Edward suffers an immediate setback when his wife notices him clenching his eyes. He begrudgingly acknowledges a slight ache in them. Her solicitude offends him. In Pinter, troubled vision is often associated with impotence and diminished vitality. Flora grows more forlorn with her husband's every crotchety reply.

The appearance of a disheveled stranger at the couple's back gate selling matches gives Edward a target for his ire. This elderly man, who has been standing outside Edward and Flora’s home holding a tray of matches in a nearly deserted lane, can only be up to no good in Edward’s estimation. He demands that Flora usher the Match Seller (Shelly Kurtz) into his study for an interrogation that he'll try to palm off as a friendly colloquy.

Edward fancies himself intellectual. He writes “theological and philosophical” essays — his current subject is “space and time” — though Africa has been a lifelong interest. A colonialist at heart, he is only truly at peace when subjugating, collecting and filing away. Conquering the Match Seller, who doesn’t speak a word throughout the play, becomes Edward’s chief obsession.

Pinter lets the situation accelerate along these lines, dramatizing the way both Edward and Flora project onto this hapless stranger all their fears and desires. The Match Seller becomes the battleground upon which they go to marital war. The boundary between realism and symbolism blurs until it dissolves almost completely.

Directed by Jack Heller, this revival of “A Slight Ache" — a Dance on Productions offering (produced in association with Linda Toliver and Gary Guidinger) — relies too heavily on scenic illustration. In Pinter, the dialogue should do the heavy lifting. Priver and Olek lack the necessary verbal ruthlessness that Pinter's work demands. Accents are vague, and lines are garbled and weakly deployed.

Jeff G. Rack’s attractively furnished scenic design bears too much responsibility for summoning a milieu that should largely be conjured in chat. The characterizations of Flora and Edward are established more from Michael Mullen’s striking costumes than from the way they converse.

Priver, who has excelled in Tennessee Williams plays at the Odyssey Theatre, starring in Michael Arabian's revival of “Kingdom of Earth” and Heller's production of "A Streetcar Named Desire," commands the role of Flora once the sexual madness is turned up and the sex-starved wife lavishes her libidinous attention on the Match Seller. But it’s Kurtz in the silent role of the trembling outsider who delivers the production’s most eloquent performance.

His eyes ablaze with fear, his reflexes conditioned for the next blow, this Match Seller clarifies (as the radio play version has difficulty doing) that the character isn’t merely a figment of the couple’s imagination. He is flesh and blood, sad, downtrodden vulnerability personified. In Pinter’s war of words, he is yet another noun that cannot be trusted — but defining him will be a costly business.

12:30 p.m. Aug. 28, 2023:

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.