The Road Not Taken

Forty years after his playwriting debut, Harold Pinter ranks in the top five of living drama scribes in at least two categories: most acclaimed and least understood. His works delight academics, who find existential metaphors for the Atomic Age in his characters' random actions and disjointed dialogue. Those very same surrealist puzzlers leave audiences scratching their heads and asking one another, "What in the world was that about?" Despite its brief 50 minutes, Pinter's 1984 single-act One for the Road manages to display some of the playwright's signature touches, but in the production now running at South Beach's Area Stage, conflicting acting styles and a lack of focus -- not the writing -- create the confusion.

A tape of Gregorian chants blares from the stage where Nicolas (Tomas Milian) is already sitting when the play begins. Dressed in black pants with a dark smock over his T-shirt and a black mask over his eyes, he's at one with set designer J.C. Rodriguez's unyielding wood and stone jailer's office, which re-creates one of Pinter's characteristically claustrophobic settings. Nicolas silences the heavenly music so he can continue his job governing this particular slice of Hell as an army interrogator for an unnamed totalitarian government.

Detained and tortured for a reason that is never revealed, Victor (Area Stage co-producer John Rodaz) painfully descends the stairs into Nicolas's office. Bloody and weak, he sits passively, resigned to the grilling that's about to begin. Calling his captive "chap" and amicably pouring himself numerous "one for the road" drinks from a decanter, Nicolas pursues a philosophical line of questioning, never soliciting any specific information nor physically abusing Victor. In Pinteresque fashion, indirect questions chase after withheld explanations; an inescapable dread builds in the room as Nicolas torments Victor with increasingly menacing observations.

"God speaks through me," Nicolas tells Victor, placing himself on the side of divine right before asking, "Are you a religious man? Which side do you think God is on?" Moments later, his fingers extended as if to gouge out Victor's downcast eyes, he announces, "I love death." Then he proceeds to distinguish, for his prisoner's benefit, the exhilarating difference between experiencing death and being responsible for it. In a quietly powerful performance by Rodaz, the impotent Victor refuses to join the conversation, showing no emotions until his silence breaks after taunts about his imprisoned wife and child. Having at last made Victor rise to the bait by repeatedly asking about his son's welfare, a gratified Nicolas chillingly avers, "I'll have a talk with him later and ask him."

Alone with the boy in the next scene, the calculating inquisitor is startled into recognizing the boy's humanity by the fact that they share a common first name; Nicolas quickly resumes his adversarial course, however, confronting Nicky (played by child actor Manny de la Fuente) about his attack on the soldiers who ransacked his family's home. More uncomfortable than scared, de la Fuente's Nicky treats his encounter like a trip to the principal's office.

His mother Gila (Beth Boone) is the first to fight back, in the play's third scene. The daughter of a man who had wielded substantial political power, she belligerently refuses to be cowed, even as Nicolas alludes to his government connections. Barely suppressing revulsion but looking her accuser in the eye, an unbroken Gila agilely tries to supply the answers that will end the physical and sexual abuse she has suffered in jail. In her visceral portrayal of Gila, Boone invests Pinter's nameless landscape with welcome emotional signposts: determination, courage, and resilience.

While Boone and Rodaz present credible political prisoners who inspire pity and outrage, Milian, with his shaved head and bloated performance, merely summons memories of Marlon Brando in Apocalypse Now. A movie star himself, in Italy (Bertolucci's Luna, Visconti's Boccaccio '70, and a nineteen-film cop series), Milian knows how to dominate the stage, but he fails to use that strength to fortify his role. Injecting long pauses between his lines and never hinting at his character's emotions, Milian offers up a textbook Pinteresque performance, which would be great in another of the writer's plays but here dilutes the overall dramatic effect.

Atypically, One for the Road replaces the author's everyday settings with an inherently dramatic locale that, for once, automatically defines characters' relationships; also surprising for Pinter, the play provides clear motivation for its characters, as evidenced in Nicolas's religious fervor, name-dropping awe, and power-crazed blood lust.

One for the Road is Pinter only to a point: Unlike the mysterious henchmen who question then drag away the antihero in The Birthday Party (1958), Nicolas has a clear professional connection to his victims. Unlike the two gunmen who are terrorized into responding to a never-ending series of requests from an unknown entity in The Dumbwaiter (1959), Victor and Gila have a terrifying grasp of what they are up against. And unlike the wife who inexplicably chooses to become a prostitute for her husband's family in The Homecoming (1965), Gila's incarceration in the jail "brothel" has clearly been forced on her.

But director Maria Banda-Rodaz (cofounder of Area Stage with her husband John) can't see the script for the name on the title page, or she is similarly dazzled by the acting choices of her movie-star leading man. Whatever the case, the result is a detached dramatization that seems better suited as a re-enactment on one of television's real-life cop shows than as a compelling piece of theater. Perhaps real political prisoners ultimately discover through their ordeal what drives one human being to torture and kill another. For the rest of us, that remains an incomprehensible horror, and we turn from news reports to art to gain understanding.

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