He made his acting debut in New York crushing beer cans against his forehead in Sam Shepard's True West. He made his Off Broadway directorial debut pumping Lanford Wilson's low-life drama Balm in Gilead full of Bruce Springsteen and Tom Waits music, transforming it into a street opera. John Malkovich made such a stunning first impression as a maniacal performer and rock and roll ringmaster that when he directed Kevin Kline and Raul Julia in George Bernard Shaw's Arms and the Man at Circle in the Square last summer, many theatergoers were perplexed by the production's gentleness and romanticism.

This didn't bother Mr. Malkovich too much, because he likes to confound expectations. In his first movie, The Killing Fields, he played a photographer; in his second, Places in the Heart, he was blind. And he followed up his wild-man act in True West with a soulful, understated performance as Biff in last season's Broadway revival of Death of a Salesman. It just so happens, though, that back home in Chicago, where he is best known as one of the founding members of the Steppenwolf Theater Company, Mr. Malkovich has made a specialty of staging cool, crisp, literate British plays by authors such as Alan Ayckbourn, Simon Gray and especially Harold Pinter. And it's this side of him on display in Mr. Pinter's Caretaker, which opens Thursday at Circle in the Square.

This production has a history of its own. Mr. Malkovich first directed it in 1978 with the same actors now performing it on Broadway -- Jeff Perry as Aston, the mentally unstable would-be carpenter; Gary Sinise as Mick, his punky younger brother; and Alan Wilder as Davies, the tramp they invite in off the street who becomes the fulcrum for their sibling rivalry.

The production was revived later the same year, with Mr. Malkovich replacing Mr. Sinise in the cast, and again a year later for a benefit in Chicago. Then last fall when Steppenwolf decided to remount The Caretaker -- "one of our own personal favorite things we've done," according to Mr. Malkovich -- to celebrate the Tony Award-winning theater company's 10th anniversary, the Circle in the Square producers Ted Mann and Paul Libin made arrangements to move the production intact after its 10-week run in Chicago.

Meeting early one afternoon recently to discuss The Caretaker, Mr. Malkovich had the rumpled, unshaven look of a director with a show in previews. Still, some passers-by on Columbus Avenue recognized the leonine features familiar from his films. As he talked, the direct midday sun outlined the vast expanse between his bushy eyebrows and his receding hairline that has earned him the affectionate nickname of "Buckethead."

"It's such a good play, and when we first did it, it was really funny. But it's been harder to do this time," he was saying, in a soft, slow voice, over coffee and an English muffin. "Gary and I were talking about it last night. The Caretaker is so much less visceral and more delicate than a lot of our plays that it can be very boring. It's certainly less visceral than  lot of the things we've done here." He was referring specifically to True West and Orphans, two Steppenwolf hits that were directed by Mr. Sinise in a style that New York Times theater critic Frank Rich referred to as "the theatrical equivalent of rock and roll."

It would be very easy to compare those two plays to The Caretaker, because all three depict a pair of brothers competing for the attention of an older man, who in each case represents an absent father figure. But as Mr. Malkovich points out, such a comparison would be misleading. "Those are kind of like Elvis Presley plays, and this is more like Ravel or Mendelssohn. In a weird way, it's hard not to like those more, because they are sort of like 'You ain't nothin' but a hound dog,' while this takes an enormous amount of time to unfold, and the meanings of the play are real hidden and obtuse and odd, and there isn't a lot of banging people around and screaming."

"The Caretaker is a far superior play," he was quick to add. "Like most good plays, it sets up a spiritual trinity among the main characters. In, say, Streetcar Named Desire, you have one character, Blanche, who's extremely ephemeral and spiritual, of the air, then you have Stanley, somebody's who an animal, very much grounded in the earth. And you have Stella, who's torn in between. This play is much the same. Aston is very spiritual, Davies is very base, and Mick is torn between the two. He talks about making this place 'a palace' -- he wants this heaven on earth, which Aston knows isn't really achievable. I suppose it is a spiritual play, but in the same way a lot of good plays are."

Mr. Malkovich's fascination with Mr. Pinter, whom he has never met, began in college when he studied at Eastern Illinois University with Dr. Lucy Gabbard, whose book A Psychoanalytical Approach to the Works of Harold Pinter became a great influence. Since then he has either directed or acted in nearly all of the Pinter plays, including The Birthday Party, The Collection, the Dumbwaiter, A Slight Ache, The Lover, Old Times and No Man's Land, sometimes more than once, mostly with Steppenwolf.

"By the time I was 20 or 21, I had read most everything written about him, and I continue to read a lot abut him. He's the only playwright I've ever done that with," said Mr. Malkovich. But his feelings about the playwright and his work have changed over the years. "The thing I used to like the best was his theatricality but the thing I like the best now is what most of his plays are about, which is our inability to know each other or maybe even ourselves. Our inability or unwillingness or perhaps incapacity to tell fact from fiction and right from wrong, and to separate dreams from reality, and to separate a dream from a goal. I like the comedy and the menace and all of that, but I think other playwrights do that just as well now, or better."

What makes Mr. Pinter's plays uniquely, perversely appealing, said Mr. Malkovich, is "the way they go blithely from action to action. Pinter was one of the first -- if not the first -- and probably the best to write about the complete lack of relationship between cause and effect, that we'll often do things simply because we do them. Somebody falls in love with somebody -- why? What happened? Somebody falls out of love with somebody -- why? What happened? Terrorists shoot down a bunch of tourists in an airport -- why? I don't get it. Of course, you can say, 'Well, in 1948 so-and-so, and then the King David Hotel blah-blah-blah.' But it's 1985, and what's happening? You kill a tourist, and that gets you a homeland? I don't know.

"The thing I like about Pinter's plays is the same thing that so many people hate," he admitted. "It's something best said by Faulkner in The Sound and the Fury. Quentin is talking about how his sister Caddie is a whore and not a virgin and how horrible that is, and his father says, 'Nothing is so horrible that it's even worth the changing of it.' See, that's the real truth about man. We try to change, and we try to accomplish certain things, but you see, in the end we die, and life goes on. We try to deny that by the act of creativity or the act of love or the act of hate. We set up a moral structure and relationships and activities to avoid the despair that is constantly underneath. Let's watch TV, let's read, let's talk, let's move, let's go, let's do, let's conquer time. But in actuality, we're not going to conquer time.

"And that," he concluded, "is what I think Pinter's plays are about. That's why even if and when they're done incredibly well, it really annoys people and frustrates people. It scares them. It's quite horrible. I've gone through periods myself when I didn't want to think about that. But that's what I think his plays are basically about -- that we can't know, really."

Having fulfilled his informal annual commitment as a director for Steppenwolf, Mr. Malkovich will return to acting as soon as The Caretaker opens. He turned down an offer to replace Harvey Keitel in A Lie of the Mind in order to co-star with Judy Davis in a British film production of Clifford Odets's Rocket to the Moon, which will eventually be broadcast on PBS's American Playhouse series. His production company with Warner Bros. Pictures is developing screenplays based on Richard Brautigan's Dreaming of Babylon and Anne Tyler's The Accidental Tourist, and he is considering one or two other movie roles. But if nothing definite transpires by summer, he will play Sal Paradise opposite Sean Penn's Dean Moriarity in Peter Sellars's adaptation of Jack Kerouac's On the Road at the American National Theater in Washington -- anything to keep from being pigeonholed.

New York Times, January 26, 1986