Elite Twits: A Pinteresque Walk on the Wild Side

Henry Olek and Susan Priver
Photo by Kayte Deioma

Harold Pinter was a prolific playwright and screenwriter. I enjoyed the 1960s films he’d written the screenplays for, The Servant and Accident, which were directed by that refugee from the Hollywood Blacklist, Joseph Losey. After being awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, Pinter’s rather heroic, 2005 noble Nobel Lecture dared to challenge the prevailing pro-war propaganda, excoriating the Iraq War. Although he was too sick to travel to Scandinavia, the hospitalized 75-year-old British man of letters videotaped his 46-minute frontal assault on U.S. foreign policy that was screened at the Swedish Academy. (See: Pinter did the best thing one can do with status, using it as a platform to be a scourge of the status quo, an implacable enemy of social injustice.

This is my longwinded way of saying that ever since then, he’s one of those dramatists I’ve made it a point to see their plays and films whenever I have the good fortune to do so. My latest opportunity to partake of a Pinter play has been offered by the Odyssey Theatre, which is reviving the British bard’s fourth stage production, A Slight Ache, which the brilliant, prickly Pinter wrote in 1958.

Without disclosing any plot spoilers, here’s the bare bones outline of Ache’s story – to the extent there is any plot per se in this character driven one-act play. Flora (Susan Priver) and Edward (Henry Olek), apparently middle-aged, upper middle class Brits, are breakfasting in their kitchen or patio (kudos to scenic designer Jeff Rack for a superb set). It turns out Edward is a writer, while Flora seems to be a hausfrau, although no children are ever seen onstage or referred to. You can tell right away from their irritable interactions that not only are they married, but their marriage is way past its expiration date. The intrusion of an insect greatly upsets their humdrum existence and Edward’s vanquishing of said bug makes him exult as if he’s the great white hunter slaying big game in the Serengeti – or a Yeti in the Himalayas. 

Although Edward may fancy himself to be a bwana on a Hemingwayesque safari in “deepest darkest Africa” for slaying a tiny winged creature, he is greatly put out by the sight of a match seller (Shelly Kurtz), trying to peddle his incendiary wares on the nearby country lane. Like the aforementioned critter, the couple (especially the man of the house) ensconced in their well-appointed home sense that anything outside of their daily routine is dangerous. In order to get to the bottom of what the peddler’s actual mission is – surveilling their household? – Flora and Edward invite him into their innermost sanctum sanctorum to find out.

He enters, wearing tattered clothing and a balaclava that reveals his aging face. In the ensuing half hour or so, separately and jointly, Flora and Edward project their inner thoughts and desires on the disheveled, increasingly confused man who seems like he may make a run for it at any minute. Flora pours her thwarted, repressed sexuality out on the bewildered match seller; Edward spins paranoid yarns and memories, alluding to his colonial misadventures in Africa, for the delectation of the street vendor. Edward repeatedly insists that the guest partake of a drink from the well-stocked bar in his study or home office.

For his part, the match seller remains silent throughout the ordeal. Deprived of his voice, Kurtz rather admirably lets his facial expressions and mannerisms speak for him, mostly while enthroned in a chair, observing these elite twits.  

Such that it is, this is more or less the quite slight plot of A Slight Ache, which runs for about 72-minutes, minus any intermission. Pinter’s play is as if Comedy of Manners meets – no, collides with – the Theater of the Absurd, with a dash (or rather, “dash it all”) of Dadaism sprinkled upon the kinky concoction. Ache also shares something in common with those British Kitchen Sink dramas in that it’s about class dynamics, as well as the eternal war between the sexes. The tragicomedy’s sexual politics may be more clear to contemporary audiences than they were when Ache was originally mounted on the stage circa 1961, which makes Pinter’s incisive, biting character study all the more perceptive and insightful about the role of women in patriarchal society. 

As John Peter points out at, a website dedicated to the Nobel Prize winner: “Basically, Pinter’s plays are about psychological warfare.” The skirmishes between Edward and Flora are immediately apparent, as the dialogue and action (the clinking of a spoon, clanking of dishes, ruffling of a newspaper) crackle with tension and conflict. Edward’s dialogue and action emanate a sense of menace (watch out for writers named Edward!). Apropos of the title, they are incessantly “slighting” one another. The hostility escalates throughout the play and may make your skin crawl. The hosts’ confrontation with the much put upon, impoverished match seller reminded me of Jordan Peele’s movie Get Out. Will the match seller ignite an explosion? I half expected the upper middle class couple to go berserk and tear the poor peddler from limb to limb, and wanted to shout to him “Get out!” while you still can.

The production, helmed in stellar style by four-time Ovation Award nominee Jack Heller, is excellently acted. The trio of thesps are reprising the roles they originally assailed together circa 2006. Henry Olek plays Edwards as the type of vainglorious, over-the-hill dime store Giuliani who dyes his hair in order to appear younger, but the only one bamboozled by this colorizing is himself. Olek is especially suited for this role, having previously performed in Pinter’s The Lover and Collection, as well as the lead in Eugene Ionesco’s absurdist classic Rhinoceros at UCLA, with Ionesco participating in residence. Olek’s TV credits include actioners such as Gunsmoke, while on the big screen he acted in Neil Simon’s Only When I Laugh and Meteor with Sean Connery. His writing credits include 1984’s All of Me, starring Lily Tomlin and Steve Martin, directed by Carl Reiner.

The statuesque blonde Susan Priver, a former ballerina, smolders as the stifled, repressed Flora. Priver has acted in plays by Tennessee Williams, Neil Simon, Sam Shepard, David Mamet and  Bertolt Brecht, and onscreen in productions such as the 2021 serial killer thriller Night Caller. Like his castmates, Shelly Kurtz is a stage and screen veteran, who has appeared in 150 plays, 40 movies including 1987’s Batteries Not Included with Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy, plus in many TV series, like Hill Street Blues and Dallas. The ensemble sparks and sparkles under Jack Heller’s direction, as well they should, considering that Heller’s rather impressive resume includes some of the theater’s most acclaimed imprimaturs: Stints with Harold Clurman at the renowned Group Theatre, plus lifetime membership in the Actors Studio. The finely etched acting of the cast evinces this rarefied stage legacy.

A Slight Ache isn’t everybody’s cup of tea. If you prefer musicals at the Pantages or action-packed productions, this more cerebral tragicomedy may leave you scratching your head and is probably not for you. Pinter’s play is for the more adventurous theatergoer, who prefers his/her forays to the live stage to be thought provoking walks on the wild side and appreciates well-honed dialogue delivered by gifted actors (or, in the case of Kurtz, solely via facial expressions and body language). To tell you the truth, I’m still trying to figure this complicated theatrical excursion all out – which, I suspect, would have mightily pleased the sometimes enigmatic Mr. Pinter.

This revival was not my first foray to the Odyssey Theatre to see a Pinteresque production. In circa 2012 I saw my first one at that bastion of the boards and bards, directed by two-time Oscar nominee John Malkovich (star of 1988’s Dangerous Liaisons and many other films), and wrote: “In A Celebration of Harold Pinter [Julian] Sands occasionally gives raspy voice to that quick witted, temperamental English playwright, poet and actor, but does not depict him per se. Rather, this two-act production consists mostly of Sands appearing as himself while paying tribute to Pinter, with anecdotes of and about him (some drawn from the memoir of Pinter’s widow, Antonia Fraser), Pinter’s comments about contemporaries such as playwright Samuel Beckett and on cricket (!), readings from some of the bard’s plays, which dominate the first act, and his poems, which form the bulk of act two.”

The show was splendid and outside, on the Odyssey’s verandah, I got to hobnob with Sands (star of 1985’s A Room with a View and so much more) and Malkovich, who in addition to being a terrific actor is a talented director. We discussed another play I’d seen him helm, back circa 1980 at Manhattan’s much-vaunted Circle Repertory Theatre, Balm in Gilead, costarring that great stage actor Danton Stone and Laurie Metcalf. (See: Unfortunately, the stage and screen world just lost Sands, and this lover of all things Pinter is sadly missed. Aloha oe, farewell to thee, Julian.

A Slight Ache runs Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 p.m. and Sundays at 2:00 p.m. through Oct. 1 at The Odyssey Theatre, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., West Los Angeles, CA 90025. For info: (310)477-2055, ext. 2;   

Shelly Kurtz and Susan Priver; Shelly Kurtz and Henry Olek; Shelly Kurtz and Susan Priver All photos by Kayte Deioma ;