A friend I ran into during intermission at the July 29 performance of Harold Pinter's 1958 play (part of PICT's Pinter festival) categorized it as "absurd." He spoke approvingly, of course, but it's easy to forget that absurdity cuts two ways.
The farcical comedy in this play set in a government-run "rest home" of some sort stands side by side with the administering of electroshock (both by and to the institution's staff), along with casual talk of the rape of patients and a general atmosphere of dehumanization.
The residents are never seen -- only a cross-section of staff, half a dozen in number, all monsters of various kinds of self-justification, alternately horrifying and pathetic.
It's easy to understand Pinter's explanation for hiding the play in his desk for 22 years after he wrote it: Originally, he just didn't like any of the characters.
But we should be glad he changed his mind. For one, the play scorchingly dramatizes, with dark hilarity, how institutions can poison the people who work inside them, in ways those people not only accept but come to embrace. (Pinter's "hot house" is easily seen as a metaphor for society at large.)
Two, this Pittsburgh premiere of a show first staged in 1980 gives us a chance to savor a brilliant cast tearing it up under the direction of Matthew Gray. Witness Leo Marks, as the sort of executive assistant Gibbs, go from hyperwatchful flunky to scheming mastermind; see Tami Dixon, as the ambiguously employed staffer/mistress/seductress Cutts, simultaneously embody and critique the gamut of female stereotypes. Scarcely less impressive in other major roles are Larry John Meyers, Michael Hanrahan and Martin Giles.
Pinter is regarded as Beckett's heir in illuminating humanity's existential dread on stage. But half of his genius, it's clear, is knowing just what great actors need to get even better.
The Hot House continues at the Henry Heymann Theatre with four more performances: 2 p.m. Sat., Aug. 7; and Aug. 13, 18 and 22 (www.picttheatre.org).