“The Hothouse” by Dark & Stormy is Hell for the Holidays

For all my fondness for the plays of Harold Pinter, I didn’t know much about The Hothouse­—and certainly had no idea that its claustrophobic and strange story takes place on a Christmas Day. It’s suitable, though, for a production that puts up barbed wire and police barricades around the concept of a comfort zone—sort of a Hell for the Holidays.

Much of the action revolves around Roote (Robert Dorfman), the head of an amorphous rest-home/insane asylum in which the staff operate with scurvy malice and strychnine machinations toward one another and, in fairness, toward the patients themselves. There’s been a pregnancy and childbirth among the institution’s charges, which would set off a whodunit—if this were a play that followed any kind of narrative convention.

Of course it doesn’t. Instead we have the obsequious Lamb (John Catron) led to a torture session by the purring Miss Cutts (Sara Marsh), and the pop-eyed ball of seethe Lush (Bill McCallum) attempting bureaucratic and perhaps literal back-knifing on the long suffering Gibbs (Mark Benninghofen), whose clipped office chatter suggests a divergence into either Monty Python or mass murder is in the offing (think John Cleese meets psycho killer).

The show itself, staged in the Grain Belt Bottling House in Northeast, is another anomaly—the action takes place on a more-or-less bare concrete floor, with the actors traversing the walkways ringing the second floor and dialogue arriving via microphones and headsets into the audience’s ears. The effect is off-putting, and weirdly cinematic, with the actors alternately projecting and speaking in hushed tones with both equally audible. It might not work, but it does—a justified leap of faith in the ability of sound designer C. Andrew Mayer.

Still, just as there’s no escaping our selves, here there’s no escaping Pinter. The Hothouse is barbed, stylized, and bleak—a feast for the mind and cold for the heart. By the time Dorfman is delivering a beleaguered holiday speech to the patients, he might as well be an out-of-touch God speaking about a Nativity miracle he barely understands—a functionary surrounded by demons masquerading as angels while the end of days approaches. It is a holiday show, of all things—and in contrast all our Christmases will be bright.

The Hothouse by Dark & Stormy Productions runs through January 4.