Plays by Pinter, Mamet get vibrant stagings

In Harold Pinter’s “The Caretaker,” men who seem to have empty centers where their hearts should be engage in a strange dance involving intimidation and entitlement.

In David Mamet’s “Glengarry Glen Ross,” which the playwright dedicated to Pinter, men with voids where their morals should be thrash about in a desperate game that also involves intimidation and entitlement.

These are two very different works, to be sure, but they share some gritty elements, pose similarly tough questions about human nature, and leave us with similarly elusive answers. A scheduling coincidence provides Baltimore theater-goers with a fresh opportunity to explore both plays.

The Pinter classic from 1958 is receiving a thoughtful, well-honed production from Performance Workshop Theatre; the 1983 Mamet piece is getting a pretty strong workout from Fells Point Corner Theatre.

“The Caretaker,” which owes a little something to Pinter’s fellow Nobel Laureate Samuel Beckett, has the barest of plots and dialogue that contains much more between the lines than in them. It is absurd, funny, a little scary -- and brilliantly crafted.

The Performance Workshop staging features a subtly detailed performance by Marc Horwitz as Davies, the crusty, bone-creaking homeless man with a hideous snore who accepts refuge from a stranger and ends up in the middle of a situation he can neither control nor understand.

Horwitz gets at the trace of dignity still left in Davies, somewhere beneath all the arrogance and contrariness.

As Aston, the timid, supposedly “work-shy” soul who offers Davies space in his dilapidated flat, Michael Salconi is quite telling for the most part, especially in the great passage when Aston recounts a dark memory of hospitalization. At his best, Michael Donlan persuades as Aston’s unsettling brother.

Director Marlyn G. Robinson has the long play unfolding with an effective inner pulse on Tony Colavito’s atmospheric set.

At its core, “The Caretaker” is about the lies we tell and the lies we want to believe. That also holds true for “Glengarry Glen Ross,” a searing portrait of Chicago real estate men who push parcels of questionable Florida land.

It’s hard to find a redeeming quality in the competitive salesmen -- slimy, yet seductive, Ricky Roma, a man who has lied so well for so long that he believes in himself ferociously; equally slimy, but hardly seductive, Dave Moss, who wants to get even with the bosses; alternately pathetic and pushy Shelly Levene, determined to reverse his losing streak.

Out of this gritty world, Mamet constructs a play that can grab even as it repels. With its saturation f-word bombing and indiscriminate slurs, the script can somehow generate a weird kind of music. The Fells Point Corner Theatre cast doesn’t always “sing” it smoothly, but there’s a good deal of potency in the tune.

Howard Berkowitz offers vivid, nuanced work as Roma. Vic Cheswick Jr. likewise brings considerable intensity to the role of Moss. Occasional stiffness aside, Jeff Murray’s nervous Shelly also registers vibrantly. David Shoemaker does a generally sound job as Roma’s latest gullible victim.

If the others do not seem fully settled into their roles, they all have their effective moments in this production, which has been directed with a mostly steady hand by Barry Feinstein (Act 2, in particular, catches fire) and ably designed by Bush Greenbeck.

It’s hard to spot any kind of light at the end of the road for any characters in “Glengarry Glen Ross” or “The Caretaker,” but the darkness in both has an enduring fascination.

"The Caretaker" runs through Saturday.

"Glengarry Glen Ross" runs through June 9.

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