On a recent Monday morning, Michael Kahn was deep into a discussion of how to best maximize one’s enjoyment of Harold Pinter, the brilliant, enigmatic 20th century playwright.
“If you watch his plays like reading a mystery story, you continually find clues as they’re going along. And that’s the way to approach a Pinter play. The truth of the matter is: it is a mystery, yet you don’t get a definite answer at the end. What you should be satisfied with is watching the switches and the changes, and then, when it’s over, have a conversation with yourself: ‘Was there a game played that somebody was supposed to win and lose? Did anybody win?’
“What you shouldn’t expect is a simple narrative. What you could expect is basically a series of mind games that go on with people.”
If anyone can cajole meaning from Pinter, it’s Kahn, a masterful Shakespearean director who knows how to put challenging language into a visual context. Evidence of this is on display at The Lansburgh Theatre, where Kahn has created, in his magnificent staging of two of Pinter’s lesser-known, rarely produced one-acts, The Lover and The Collection, a dark, mesmerizing, menacing, abundantly theatrical evening. It absorbs you like a sponge.
“Pinter is writing about the games we play with each other in the struggle in relationships,” says Kahn of the two one-acts, which were originally penned for British television. “Who’s in charge?… I don’t think there are any of us who don’t think that relationships are negotiations. And these are condensed negotiations about relationships by a brilliant and clever man.”
Of the plays, The Collection contains particularly strong gay subtext, something Kahn brings to the fore with sinister elegance. Over the course of the work, a narrative about a possible infidelity continually morphs until it’s become something very different from what was first put forth.
“In The Collection, do we ever know the truth? And can you go see a play where you really ever do know the truth? That is an interesting question, to say do we ever tell each other the truth? And here’s a man writing a play about that. And just about that.
“The fun of Pinter,” he says, “is to go and get the puzzle, and then figure it out. It’s always a series of Chinese boxes. It’s always a cat-and-mouse game. Follow that, and you can have a lot of fun.”
The Lover and The Collection run to Oct. 29 at the Lansburgh Theatre, 450 7th Street NW. Tickets are $44 to $118. Call 202-547-1122 or visit shakespearetheatre.org.
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