As soon as the lights go up on the shambles of an attic room, the audience laughs. And it hardly ever stops throughout the production of "The Caretaker" that came to the Circle in the Square last night, turning Harold Pinter's early "comedy of menace" into something more like a comedy of discombobulation.
The expansive room, rotted beams slanting toward each other, is a place in comic disarray. The performance it encloses puts more stress than usual on the disreputable title character, Davies.
As played by Alan Wilder, a reasonably young actor made up to resemble a sagging oldster with a mussed mane of white hair. Davies is less a pathetic figure than a low-comedy tramp.
The old man, rescued by his vacant brother Aston (Jeff Perry) from a fracas in an eatery where Davies was mopping floors, is a lying, complaining, and utterly impossible house guest.
But Wilder's performance is so entertaining that the brothers, whose good guy-bad guy treatment of Davies is a vital part of this three-character whirligig, fade into the jumbled setting.
Perry's brain-altered Aston (the result of some electric shock treatment) is so laid-back that it's not until his long and moving reminiscence that brings the second act to a close that we pay much attention to him.
And the composed and unpredictable Mick (Gary Sinise), who owns the house which he lets Aston occupy, only shows his violent nature in a late scene. He lets loose with a sudden burst of anger worthy of a Sam Shepard character, smashing bric-a-brac, dismantling shelves, tossing a cot upside down.
So while John Malkovich, who has both staged and dressed this Steppenwolf Theater Company production, has properly concentrated on the play's central figure, he has neglected to provide the work with a proper balance.
It is all of Pinter's funny (sad?) bits that dominate the long evening: Davies' whining for a comfortable pair of shoes, rejecting the pairs Aston finds for him; Davies' repeated intentions of seeking out his identity papers from city authorities; Davies' dissatisfaction with sleeping near an open window.
The Pinter pauses are all in place, and the haunting outlines of the three men, as lighted by Kevin Rigdon (he also designed the set), are arresting. But all the substance, or almost all of it, has been poured into Davies in Wilder's uncommonly resourceful performance.
Harold Pinter has always claimed that his play The Caretaker means no more, and no less, than what we see on stage. There is no symbolism up his sleeve, no hidden story lurking in the wings.
Possibly. Indeed, probably. Yet recall that Pinter also once suggested that he was always writing about "the weasel under the cocktail cabinet." And he is.
Menace, violence, surprise, the unfamiliar familiar, the unknown known - these are the resonances that must inform any Pinter staging. They are resonances that have made "Pinteresque" into an adjective and even a style.
These resonances were hugely lacking in the Broadway revival of The Caretaker staged last night by Chicago's Steppenwolf Theater Company at the Circle in the Square.
The realization that one was present at the world premiere of a classic - even a modern classic - is a little unnerving, but since that first London performance in 1960, The Caretaker has been around the world and back many times. It is Pinter's most often produced play, and still one of his most controversial.
It split the New York critics down the center (rather as Samuel Beckett had earlier), with such critics as Walter Kerr finding it "hollow."
Since those days, hollow or not, it has been staged many, many times - in recent years I particularly recall F. Murray Abraham in Donald Pleasance's original role of the tramp at New York's Roundabout, and Warren Mitchell for Britain's National Theater.
The story is strange - and, yes, Pinteresque. A young man, Aston, picks up a homeless tramp, Davies, and brings him back to live in an odd, ramshackle, cluttered attic.
The young man has a younger brother, Mick. Together and by turn, they taunt, cajole, mock, and tease Davies over a period of two weeks.
They pretend to respond to his garrulous whims, suggest he can be their caretaker, encourage him to take sides, backing one sibling against the other.
At last - with the chill arrogance of dismissive gods - they banish him, turning him out into an even colder, more uncertain world, with his stubborn pride now as tattered as his shoes.
The Chicago cast, and the Chicago director, John Malkovich, play the play as if it were by David Mamet, a kind of unlikely English Buffalo.
Of course there is a kinship between Pinter and Mamet. Both excel in oblique and stealthy violence, both use language to lull familiarity into contempt.
Yet there are differences that run deeper than the London accents, which afforded the Chicagoans peculiar difficulties.
They lacked authority - the natural authority of place. The authority that made the American staging of Mamet's Glengarry Glen Ross more authentic than its excellent British world premiere by the National Theater.
But even more than this, the director, Mr. Malkovich, and his quite talented actors, seemed unable to let the play speak for itself, creak for itself. Less would have been more.
The one indubitably fine performance comes from Gary Sinise as Mick, a smooth bully-boy punk characterization in the true Pinter tradition, with a voice smarmy with sub-text, and a body as taut as a hooded cobra.
Jeff Perry offers an intentionally pale but not particularly interesting Aston, and Alan Wilder as Davies, the tramp, is blusteringly inadequate, never cunning enough, or, at heart, vicious enough.
The play may ultimately be seen as Davies' tragedy, a tragedy for which we may feel pity. But it is the tragedy of a stoat at bay - the weasel at last trapped under that cocktail cabinet.
Such balance, and such overtones, never emerge from a production that is disappointingly and doggedly provincial, in the worse sense of that discouragingly dyslogistic phrase.
Although Chicago's Steppenwolf Theater Company has already done a sensational hypothetical version of ''The Caretaker,'' the genuine item has not come to life in the newly arrived production at the Circle in the Square. As it happens, the recent Steppenwolf presentation of ''Orphans'' - a pastiche derivative of ''The Caretaker'' written by Lyle Kessler and directed by Gary Sinise - was far closer in spirit to Harold Pinter's 1960 three-man play than John Malkovich's current staging of the actual Pinter script. What's gone wrong? Just about everything. Stretching to almost three hours -even while failing to fill much more than half of the Circle's arena stage - this ''Caretaker'' honors the pauses in Pinter but little else.
The exciting previous Steppenwolf offerings in New York - which include Mr. Malkovich's staging of ''Balm in Gilead'' and Mr. Sinise's of ''True West'' - have been distinguished by a volcanic visceral style, funny and searing, that owes much to the raw passions, gymnastic dance patterns and vocal rhythms of rock-and-roll. It remains to be seen if the style can be applied to texts that don't share the kinetic rock sensibility. When Mr. Malkovich staged ''Arms and the Man'' at Circle in the Square last year, he opted for a conventional approach, shying away from any Steppenwolf touches. Might Pinter have been more susceptible to the company imprint than Shaw? Perhaps - if only because ''The Caretaker,'' a game of ''odd man out'' among two brothers and a strange older vagrant in a lower-depths household, shares much of its story, themes and gut-level theatricality with ''Orphans.''
But Mr. Malkovich's staging merely begs the question of his company's possible esthetic congruity with Pinter. Neither a traditional production nor a revisionist Steppenwolf spectacle, this ''Caretaker'' is a giggly, sloppy reading of the play that dissipates its potentially absorbing drama. As the slow-witted Aston (Jeff Perry) and his hustling younger brother, Mick (Mr. Sinise), battle over psychic and household territory with the scurvy old tramp Davies (Alan Wilder), we are meant to watch a fundamental search for identity and human contact among men who share the ontological terror of being cast out alone into the dark.
A breakthrough Pinter work if hardly a major one, ''The Caretaker'' is often overintellectualized on stage. In the Steppenwolf rendition, only the set designer, Kevin Rigdon, seems to have fallen into that trap: The brothers' decrepit, awkwardly configured west-London house looks like a bombed-out cathedral. Mr. Malkovich's failing, however, is more damaging: He hardly seems to have thought through the text at all. There is none of the essential menace or tension in the atmosphere, even when violence figures in the action. (The harrowing sequence featuring a malevolent Electrolux vacuum cleaner is completely bungled.) Almost as if to acknowledge his failure to cast the right spell, the director tries to force-feed it by adding his own pot-and-pan-spilling climax, seemingly out of ''American Buffalo.'' By then, such desperate salvage efforts are too late.
What has come before is a sentimental sitcom, American in linguistic beat while incongruously English in accent. The play's dry, black humor, which expresses the shifting psychic struggles and allegiances of the three men, has been replaced by interpolated sight gags, often accompanied by mugging, about the bric-a-brac (and other props) cluttering Aston's room. The blood tie that binds the brothers - and whose resilience is integral to the play's suspense - is broadly accentuated by the exchange of knowing glances between Aston and Mick. While such juvenile flourishes don't necessarily contradict Mr. Pinter's meaning, they so deflate his taut dramatic structure that the play's grip on the audience is relinquished throughout.
The actors may be as much victims as perpetrators of the evening's lassitude. Certainly all three performances leave much to be desired. Mick, a caustic small-time entrepreneur who could be a hoodlum, is not especially sinister in Mr. Sinise's cartoonish interpretation: His fits of barking anger have the italicized, put-on campiness of old-time gangster movies. (One would be curious to see Mr. Sinise directing Mr. Malkovich in the role.) As the mentally deficient Aston, the pale Mr. Perry has developed a robotic voice and blank stare, but we never feel this mostly virtuous character's underlying charity of spirit. His lengthy Act II reminiscence about his electric-shock therapy - a speech most interesting for its connections to Pinter plays running from ''The Hothouse'' (1959) to ''A Kind of Alaska'' (1983) - is unmoving and, at times, inaudible.
The plum part, of course, is the querulous tramp Davies - a conniving paranoid whose attempt to play psychological one-upmanship with his fraternal benefactors backfires with tragic results. For all his elaborate makeup and mangy clothing, Mr. Wilder isn't convincingly elderly or feral. More crucially, he fails to impress as a threatening intruder in Act I or as a pathetic outcast in Act III. What we get instead is a low English comedian - a cute, curmudgeonly Fagin out of ''Oliver!''
If little else, Mr. Wilder's benign performance is of a piece with the rest of this uncharacteristically jokey Steppenwolf production. In contrast to the company's previous outings, which rocked with nocturnal horror, its ''Caretaker'' is so fearful of exploring the frightening Pinter darkness that even the setting's single hanging lightbulb seems several shades too bright.