Linda Hunt gives a quietly virtuoso performance in Harold Pinter's "The Room," airing tonight at 10 on ABC (Channels 7, 3, 10, 42), and ABC deserves a congratulatory toast for offering this provocative work in the midst of so much of the manufactured commercial glee that characterizes the season.
"The Room" is Pinter's first major work, a one-act play that opened the same year as Samuel Beckett's "Waiting for Godot," marking 1957 as the beginning of the revolution in modern theater.
Robert Altman, one of our few major talents who hasn't turned his back on the theater, produces and directs, and he's smartly avoided the cliches that tend to collect around Pinter productions, such as ominous silences and shared glances of grievous portent.
Pinter is a poet of the kind of enigma that falls in the spaces amid our everyday speech and action, but Altman and his cast have the good sense to flesh out word and gesture in an almost ordinary way, so that we get the feel of how much strangeness there is underneath our common transactions.
"The Room" is just that, a large bedroom in an old, imposing Victorian house let to Mr. and Mrs. Hudd. Bert Hudd (David Hemblen) keeps his cap and coat on in the chilly room while laboriously constructing apartment interiors inside of bottles. He drives a truck, and locks himself in the sullen silence of the aggrieved working class. Rose Hudd (Linda Hunt) keeps up a cheery, wary patter ("If they ever ask you, I'm happy where I am. It's quiet. We're happy. Nobody bothers us.").
Mr. Kidd (Donald Pleasance) is their landlord who's constantly checking out the place, high and low, lips prissily pursed. Mr. and Mrs. Sands (Julian Sands, Annie Lennox) are a sleek, sinister married couple who claim they'd like to rent a room--the Hudds' room--but we're never sure exactly what they want. Abbott Anderson plays an old blind black man who bears a message to Rose from home.
There isn't a big payoff in "The Room" in any conventional dramatic sense, except for a moment of what seems gratuitous violence. The payoffs instead come continuously in the small and exacting ways in which Pinter shows us the paranoid misgivings that circulate around people whose hold on civility is a touch slippery.
Because so much goes on under the surface, playing Pinter has become a largely misguided convention of pointing to the mystery and darkness that push up against our banal exchanges wherein we barely listen to each other, our words striking against each other like billiard balls.
Sands and Lennox are a little affected, but otherwise Altman's cast plays out the sensual, watchful, self-absorbed and anxious manner of people getting through their day. Their mystery is their self-containment disguised in nominal civility.
Linda Hunt gives a sharp, wary, fully fleshed performance of a perfectly plausible middle-class lady who watches and comments on the world from her perch behind Venetian blinds.
"The Room," in its detailed plainness, is intensely evocative.