Well-heeled Brits Sarah (Anne Sorce) and Richard (Jeffrey Jason Gilpin) have been married for 10 years, and Pinter immediately introduces them as creatures of habit. Richard has the play's first line: "Is your lover coming today?" he asks Sarah. He is, she replies, at 3 pm, but he'll be gone by the end of teatime. It's quite all right, though: Richard's got a whore he regularly visits. Things are balanced, aren't they?
It's a mesmerizingly matter-of-fact beginning to what's essentially an hourlong mind game, with Sorce and Gilpin toying endlessly with each other. Gilpin departs, but soon after returns as a sort of Cockney cowboy, all dropped h's and bowlegged swagger. Sarah refers to him as Max. There's some hilarious choreography of seduction, in which Sorce pours herself over the red chaise lounge and Gilpin struts around with a small bongo drum. Is he her lover? Or is this a form of intricate role-play between the couple? Those are questions that Pinter—as is his wont—leaves open, as do Sorce and Gilpin as they tango through the script's acrimonious accusations, desperate demands and absurd questions. It's a fascinating, slyly constructed piece of theater, a psychosexual labyrinth of desire, delusion, uncertainty and jealousy.
With her throaty voice and arch expression, Sorce's performance is so bold and unusual it seems at first she'll overpower Gilpin. But he comes into his role in a quiet way, his long face shifting from anxious to indignant to wounded. It's all terrifically funny, too, the jokes about cold ham and enormous udders too good to spoil here. At one point, Sorce turns to Gilpin: "You're having a lovely joke," she says. "It's no joke," he icily replies. Indeed: The Lover may be an elaborate game, but these performers aren't joking around.
SEE IT: The Lover is at Imago Theatre, 17 SE 8th Ave., 231-3959. 8 pm Thursdays and Saturdays and 9 pm Fridays through Dec. 21. $10-$20 sliding scale.