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Pryce magisterial in Pinter's 'Caretaker'

'The Caretaker" was Harold Pinter's first smash -- the 1960 breakthrough that first identified "Pinteresque" as an adjective for things menacing, ambiguous, playful and armed with an unsettling arsenal of silent pauses.

Yet oddly enough, the wondrously creepy tragicomedy has not been staged much in New York. So it's worth a trip to BAM to see the magisterial Jonathan Pryce, who might have played either of the three-man play's younger brothers in earlier days, looming large, shambling and muscularly decrepit now as old Davies, the would-be caretaker himself.

If there is a lack of mystery in director Christopher Morahan's taut if straightforward production, and there is, this could partly be blamed on a mismatch between the large open stage and essential airlessness of the set -- a single junk-filled West London room. Staged for touring, the attic junkyard flat has been pushed far back away from the audience. This not only cuts down on immediacy, but, even with these fine actors, adds an echo that blurs some of Pinter's exquisitely precise words.

Still, the play, coproduced by the Liverpool Everyman that Pryce ran 35 years ago, continues to give up the liberating cruelty of its secrets. Pryce is deliciously wary and unsentimental as the grizzled tramp, a mean old bigot invited back to the room by the seemingly kind Aston (Alan Cox) and abused by the scary brother Mick (Alex Hassell).

This Davies has a mesmerizing set of ingrained habits, an almost whistling woo-woo response to incredulous observations and fingers that wiggle and waggle and pound his forehead in small, uncontrollable seizures. In a lesser actor, these could be mannerisms. In Pryce, they are part of a man so alienated and so weary that we can feel his painful exhaustion when he is finally allowed to sink into a grimy cot.

Hassell is nasty rough-trade as Mick, one of Pinter's unpredictable working-class terrors, while Cox makes blandness meaningful as the brother with the past at least as horrifying as Davies' existence.

Morahan compresses the three acts into two, which is good, but reduces the insularity of the pecking-order power play by adding East Indian music from the neighbors and glimpses of the outside world beyond the room.

Still this is vintage Pinter. Even in a less than ideal setting, the playwright and Pryce are filling the catch of a breath or a simple pause with more humanity than most can drum up with hours of breast beating.

WHAT: "The Caretaker"

WHERE: BAM Harvey Theater, 651 Fulton St.

INFO: $25-$100; 718-636-4100; BAM.org

BOTTOM LINE Not enough Pinter mystery but Pryce is a magisterial bum

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