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Rich dialogue carries Pinter play

"The Caretaker," through Oct. 11, Salt Lake Acting Company (801-363-7522), running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes (with two 10-minute intermissions)

"The Caretaker" by Harold Pinter has been labeled as "theater of the absurd."

But there was nothing absurd over the weekend about the fine acting jobs of the three men performing Pinter's play for the Salt Lake Acting Company as it kicked off its 2009-2010 season.

"The Caretaker" was first performed in 1960. In a most simplistic description, it's a play about two brothers and a bum inside a cluttered house. But on a deeper level, the play looks at issues of isolation, deception and the desire for a better life … all topics that are as relevant today as they were nearly 50 years ago.

That said, "The Caretaker" isn't a play that will appeal to everyone. Pinter purposely leaves his play as open for interpretation as the storyline itself. "The Caretaker" seems to just stop rather than have an ending that ties up all of the storyline's loose ends, a Pinter trademark. The play is rich with long dialogue, the backbone of the production, and very short on "action," something that also may not appeal to everyone.

But theater-goers who pay attention to the words and the plights of each character will likely find some themes they can relate to from their own lives.

The story takes place in a house in west London. Aston (Daniel Beecher) runs into Davies, (Joe Cronin) a homeless old man, and invites him back to his house. Aston is supposed to be taking care of the home for his brother, Mick (Matthew Ivan Bennett), a fast talking, seemingly career-oriented man. But when Mick finds out that Davies is living there, he is at first cruel to him, only later offering him the position of caretaker of the house.

Davies, who at first seems to be appreciative of the offer to stay, soon becomes picky about his living conditions and finds faults with his host's kind offerings. He is deceptive in who he is, with his No. 1 priority being himself as he forms alliances to whatever situation works in his favor.

Brothers Aston and Mick hardly speak to each other, often going out of their way to avoid the other altogether.

The roles are challenging because of the volume of material each actor has to memorize. But Cronin, Beecher and Bennett, who each have moments of long, continuous dialogue during the course of the play, pull off the task with flying colors. Davies, in particular, has long speaking parts in which his character has to come off as seemingly mentally challenged but not completely babbling nonsense.

The play's climax comes at the end of Act II, when Aston recounts when he was taken to a mental hospital and given electric-shock therapy. He reveals that doctors gave him the treatment while he was standing up, something they weren't supposed to do, leaving Aston with permanent mental disabilities.

All three characters are striving for greener pastures, and each seem to have pinpointed how to get there. Aston wants to build a shed in the back of his house. Davies talks constantly about getting his papers in the Sidcup suburb. Mick sees himself as being on his way to a successful career. In a way, the characters are deceiving themselves that these tasks will bring the improvement to the lives they want.

But whether because of laziness, mental illness or being overwhelmed by the daunting task before even starting, the characters never take the initiative to try and achieve their goals.

Overall, "The Caretaker" explores many themes of human life. It is designed to make the audience ask questions. The trick is balancing the right amount of humor, drama and delivering the right tempo of dialogue so the audience's only question after the play isn't, "What was that?"

Kudos to Keven Myhre for designing an excellent set for this production, turning the SLAC stage into a delightfully cluttered room.

E-mail:preavy@desnews.com