In a combative family of men, taunts are hurled like weapons in British playwright Harold Pinter's "The Homecoming."
But anyone familiar with Pinter's best work knows that his shrewd silences, what characters don't say, speak volumes. They ignite the work's dramatic -- and often twisted -- conflicts.
These forsaken relatives cohabit a run-down home in North London, where one-upmanship is common. Max, the cruel patriarch, is a retired butcher with a quicksilver temperament. His wife died years ago, and the abysmal dysfunction of their lower-class family dynamic is evident.
Max verbally spars with his two grown sons -- hostile ringleader Lenny, a shady pimp, and dim Joey, a laborer and wannabe boxer. He is also irritated by his genteel brother Sam, a chauffeur used to deflecting insults.
Eldest son Teddy, a college professor of philosophy, arrives unannounced from America, with Ruth, the mother of his three children and wife of six years, in tow.
It is soon apparent, through nuanced glances and weighted words, that something is not right. Proper in appearance and manner at first, Ruth lets down her guard in this testosterone-fueled household. Disclosing a shadowy past, she gradually wields power, prodding their basic instincts. Sexual tension escalates and the discomfort swells with the disturbing mood shift.
For 45 years, the ambiguities of Pinter's masterful dark comedy of menace have bewildered audiences and critics. We can debate at length the motives behind the innuendo, and "The Homecoming" remains a benchmark in contemporary conundrums.
Nevertheless, a skilled presentation can enthrall, and St. Louis Actors' Studio does just that, clearly tapping into Pinter's intricacies.
STLAS' final production of its outstanding seventh season ("The Sins of the Father" theme) never loses its grip. A powerhouse cast is deftly guided by director Milton Zoth, who defined the puzzle pieces with surgical precision. He smartly layered feelings of resentment, despair and restlessness bit by bit, calibrating the friction that culminates with outlandish proposals from the two bachelor brothers.
This expressive ensemble expertly shades their characters, revealing who they really are by degrees. The remarkable Peter Mayer smoothly spews venom and explodes in violent outbursts at the sour pitiful Max, never dropping his working-class cockney accent.
Charlie Barron is a blistering Lenny, showcasing nimble dialect work as well. He effectively laces his cadences with a sinister aftertaste.
Nathan Bush, memorable as the cynical catalyst in "Pterodactyls" last fall, is convincing as the simple-minded youngest son, looking genuinely befuddled during family conversations.
Missy Heinemann isn't so quick to show her true colors, changing subtly. Her calculating Ruth eventually maneuvers the men as if playing chess. As the uptight Teddy, Ben Ritchie has the trickiest character to pull off, and that's a role that remains an enigma.
Larry Dell is affecting as mannerly Sam, trying hard to hold on to his dignity in a savage environment.
Tech director Mark Feazel sleekly handles the emphatic lighting design by Patrick Huber, who also designed the shabby living room set.
Similar in acerbic tone to "August: Osage County," The Homecoming" smolders in secrets and deliberate pauses. Its American debut in 1967 won the Tony Award for Best Play, and a revival in 2008 garnered three nominations.
After all these years, it sustains quite a wallop in STLAS' transparent interpretation.
At a Glance
What: "The Homecoming"
Where: St. Louis Actors' Studio
When: 8 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays and 3 p.m. Sundays, through June 8.
Where: The Gaslight Theater, 358 N. Boyle Ave., St. Louis
Tickets at Ticketmaster, 800-982-2787; www.stlas.org