Harold Pinter described "The Hothouse" as "an odd mixture of laughter and chill," and that masterfully sums up his disquieting 1958 play that takes place on Christmas Day in a ministry-run mental institution where torture and rape are part of the therapy regimen.
Director Kathleen Akerley presents this seemingly grim scenario as a combination of "The Day of the Locusts" and an offbeat Nativity pageant, adding touches of anarchic humor and askew energy in Longacre Lea's frequently smashing production.
Mr. Pinter's penchant for farce and horror are gleefully at work in "The Hothouse," set in the overheated atmosphere of a greenhouse on a major holiday. For the institution's director, Roote (Michael John Casey), it's business as usual, as he reviews cases with his frighteningly efficient assistant, Gibbs (Michael Glenn).
The patients are not known by their names but by long strings of numbers, yet this anonymity has not stopped Roote from sleeping with a female patient (who has given birth to a boy on Christmas morning) and murdering another. His cavalier behavior is reprehensible, to be sure, but his attitude — that the patients and staff are there purely for his pleasures and manipulations — makes him all the more a reviled figure.
Mr. Casey, interestingly, plays him as the ultimate clueless and inefficient bureaucrat, someone who burned out long ago but who covers up his dead soul with bluster and maddeningly pointless conversations with Gibbs.
Soon, you realize the staffers are bigger nutters than the patients they treat. Cutts (Abby Wood), Roote's mistress, is a scheming seductress who uses torture as a way to alleviate the apparently bottomless boredom of her job. Lamb (Jason Lott) is a wild-eyed, emotionally volatile security guard who spends way too much time inside his head. Lush (Jonathon Church, whose limber, lunatic gusto lights up every scene he's in) toadies up to Roote and exudes such oily unwholesomeness you wonder whether he leaves behind an oozy trail as he wanders the corridors. Gibbs, compellingly portrayed by Mr. Glenn, is a well-organized cipher — but a cipher with an agenda.
Roote's attempts at regaining control over the institution are what drives the action of "The Hothouse." He's a monster but you can't help feeling a bit sorry for the guy, since clearly something terrible is about to happen. Much of the delicious tension in the play stems from the interplay of almost vaudevillian bumbling and bantering by Roote and his staff, and a creepy sense of foreboding that hangs over the play like a poisonous vine.
The moist, close atmosphere of a hothouse is brought to life in Elizabeth Jenkins McFadden's set, a concrete jungle gym with touches of greenery and exotic plants, as well as a back wall where shadowy figures loom ominously behind the fogged-up panes of glass. One of Miss Ackerley's concepts for the play is to have the actors climb and clamber all over the set as though it's a macabre playground. It's an idea that works better in some scenes — notably, a cat-and-mouse game between Lush and Roote — and is merely gimmicky and unnecessarily attention-grabbing in others.
For most of the play, the cast adeptly manipulates Mr. Pinter's enigmatic, blankly funny dialogue and maintains an atmosphere of genial menace. Treat people like animals and objects, Mr. Pinter seems to say, and eventually they'll behave accordingly exacting their revenge out of feral instinct and chilling indifference.
WHAT: "The Hothouse" by Harold Pinter
WHERE: Longacre Lea at Catholic University's Callan Theatre, 3801 Harewood Road NE
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays. Through Sept. 9.
TICKETS: $12 to $18
WEB SITE: www.longacrelea.org
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS