Dark & Stormy Productions has just conjured up something mysterious. I don’t know who they sold their souls to, but they have created a production of Harold Pinter’s The Hothouse that managed to pull such good crowds that they’ve extended their run by another three shows (Jan. 8-10). When does that ever happen around here – especially for a small, new-ish theater company? This is just their fifth production.

I went to see the show on Sunday night, but not so much to find out whether it was good – apparently, the crowds and critics have already spoken. Instead, I wanted to know the why and the how of the company’s extreme success. Pinter is not a playwright who is easy to perform well. Of the absurdist playwrights of the mid-20th century (already a hard sell to the general public), he doesn’t have Samuel Beckett’s iconic status or Edward Albee’s sense of Americana. For most people, if they’ve heard of Pinter, it’s because of the pauses that he frequently writes into his dialogue – pauses that are either laden with juicy meaning, or horrifically, pretentiously, boringly overplayed. So my question was, again, what Satanic ritual did Dark & Stormy perform in order to inspire rooms full of people to try and start their cars on a Sunday night with a wind chill down to negative double digits?

Or, put a less Biblical way, what about this play resonates so well with current audiences that it can support an additional weekend of performances?

Nothing in the plot itself has an especially local flair to it: it’s a play about the staff members of an unnamed English “rest home” in which one patient has recently died of “heart failure”, and another has just given birth to a baby boy. The administration’s attempts to discover the identity of the child’s father (or identify a scapegoat) form the basis for a tightly-wound satire of administrative incompetence. From the boss’s complaints that there is no “system” – as if creating that system were someone else’s job – to his obsequious underlings and sexually manipulative mistress/employee, everyone looks ridiculous and no one is blameless.

Oh wait… maybe this play does resonate with local audiences after all. You know, for all those times when you have to speculate about whether the higher-ups actually have a job description. Or those meetings where you get fed a convoluted company line, and you wonder if you just missed something important or if that really was just a load of nonsense. For every time you contemplated the accuracy of the Peter Principle (that managers will “rise to the level of their incompetence”), this play is there to confirm your worst suspicions.

What great actors do

The success of all this satire is due to some truly memorable interpretations by the cast, all six of whom are outstanding. Robert Dorfman leads the charge and deserves a special mention as Roote, the head of the institution. Roote is the stereotypical white guy behind a desk, but his expressive face and childlike attitudes make him more interesting than that. He clearly has more power than his character takes responsibility for; through carelessness or self-interest, even his most casual actions (or inaction) can have grave consequences for the institution’s patients.

Roote’s underlings are equally chilling and well-portrayed. As the highly disciplined Gibbs, Mark Benninghofen exposes what possibilities lie beneath a matter-of-fact, professional exterior, and his co-worker, Lush (Bill McCallum) is the kind of smooth talker who just might be able to convince you that a “rest home” and a “convalescent home” are two different things. John Catron is hopelessly naïve as the (sacrificial) Lamb, who thinks you can actually succeed in business simply by doing your job well. Sara Marsh plays the seductive Miss Cutts with extreme physical restraint; her complete self-control created one or two oddly static moments, but it highlighted her ability to keep the men under her thumb with artfully chosen words and well-timed bouts of insecurity.

In the second act, as the characters’ intentions become less clear and Roote’s managerial composure starts to crack, the satire lost a bit of its punch. For me, the threat lurking beneath the surface of the first act was more potent than the more visible menace of the second. But the play’s gradual unraveling might just be another side of its power, since it lays bare some of the power dynamics between the patients and the various levels in the staff hierarchy.

Pinter makes a clear distinction between the staff, who are so far removed from the patients that we aren’t sure what their jobs are, and the understaff, who are responsible for direct patient care. Anyone who has worked in health care, or any other setting with a front-of-house/back-of-house management structure, will immediately recognize the absolutely weird power plays and maneuvering that goes on between the rungs of the corporate ladder.

Exciting use of space and sound

Another point of interest for this production is its use of space and sound. Dark & Stormy is known for staging theater in unique locations, but its choice of the cavernous Grain Belt Bottling House is particularly well-suited to The Hothouse.

The artists’ studios that line the warehouse’s balcony can easily be stand-ins for patient rooms, and C Andrew Mayer’s sound design has turned the building’s echoey acoustic into an artistic advantage: the actors are mic’d, and we hear the dialogue through individual headsets. As initially odd as the setup seems, it actually allows for a broader interpretation of Pinter’s text, with mumbles, whispers, and muttered asides that wouldn’t be audible on a traditional stage.

I would love to believe that Twin Cities audiences are so enthusiastic, discerning, and supportive that they will come out in droves for all plays that are as well-acted and darkly hilarious as this one. But I’ve seen enough half-full theaters that I know this doesn’t always happen, so congratulations to Dark & Stormy for its fine accomplishment. The company has sunk its teeth into a challenging play and produced a smoothly-executed work that allows us to laugh – and shudder – at blatant acts of corporate ineptitude.

If you haven’t seen it yet, you’ve got one more weekend. It’s not supposed to get much warmer outside, but this unsettling comedy is worth leaving the house for.