Pinter’s Deathbed Meditation More Baffling Than Brilliant
In theater, a division must exist between a play’s characters and the audience, no matter the extent of viewer empathy for the plight of the players. This is dictated by the art form’s definition and logistics. In Harold Pinter’s “Moonlight,” currently at the Studio Theater, this doesn’t happen. As a result, the audience is likely to be just as confused as the characters.
It is possible that Pinter, the British master of thespian absurdity, could have penned a script that is just too, well, Pinteresque (his signature style that implies threat and strong feeling through apparent triviality and long pauses). Although at times intriguing and full of pregnant potential, the play suffers from incomprehension and doesn’t give the audience much to grab onto. And when the barebones of a story is as morbidly depressing as this one, it is only fair to allow observers the satisfaction of deciphering the message.
Perhaps Pinter, who died last year, was himself too close to the play’s subject. The story is of Andy, an aging patriarch confined to his deathbed who tries to make sense of his disappointing life after years of ranting. Members of Andy’s dysfunctional family envelop him in either physical presence, or in only memory and longing. His long-suffering wife Bel sits on the edge of his bed, almost taunting him. His two disenfranchised sons, Jake and Fred, mock him from afar, while his ethereal daughter, Bridget, is a ghost-like remembrance.
“Moonlight” was one of Pinter’s later works, written when his own mortality was approaching. Just as Andy’s boys struggle with ambivalence toward their father, Pinter was not close to his own father, who was a strong disciplinarian. Pinter also experienced separation from his own son during a divorce.
Kudos though should go to director Joy Zinoman — Studio’s founding artistic director, who is retiring at the end of the 2010 season — for carefully casting her main character. The role of patriarch Andy is done justice in this production with a strong portrayal by Ted van Griethuysen, who somehow makes nebulous dialogue as concrete as possible with absolute conviction. While displaying cruel tendencies, Andy magically becomes the most likeable character in the play. This can be credited to the honesty and vulnerability of the character and van Griethuysen’s portrayal.
One of the most painful lines Andy cries out — “Where are the boys?” — is rhetorical for both Andy, who knows his sons have abandoned him, and for the audience, who witnesses the sons living their separate lives on the other side of the stage. He gets his response in an unanswered phone ringing in the sons’ meager living space.
The weakest link in this production is the portrayal of Jake and Fred, due to the seemingly simple problem of diction. The play is set in England, and the combination of thick accents, rapidity of speech and the meandering nature of Pinter’s language is challenging to follow. The boys’ destructive contention for each other and their family translate largely through physical altercations and body language.
By contrast, Sybil Lines is definitive in her portrayal of Bel, who vacillates between being crushed by her husband’s remarks and acerbic in her comebacks.
Andy and Bel’s delivery is clear, as well as poetic — one of Pinter’s trademarks.
“Death is your new home,” says Bel.
“Can I see to the other side? Is it endless? Is it unceasing moonlight or pitch black forever? There must be a loophole, but I can’t find it,” says Andy.
Debra Booth’s minimalist set — a few sticks of furniture and some symbolic props — mimics Pinter’s barebones sketch of a household gone awry, although there could have been a greater difference made between the two living spaces that share the stage — that of Andy and Bel, the other for Jake and Fred. Daughter Bridget’s arena is situated suitably above the main stage, which appears to hover over the play’s action. From her perch, she plays an omniscient narrator, of sorts, whom some critics have identified as a ghost. There are no scene changes — the play lasts 80 minutes without intermission — other than moving back and forth between living spaces.
At the end of the day, what this play conveys is an undefined feeling of uneasiness. There is little comic relief, a constant sense of foreboding, and a nebulous conclusion. “‘Moonlight’ hovers in the space between life and death, family and isolation,” writes the Studio Theatre.
The play’s intention — to force a hard look at life and mortality, with all its flaws and inconsistencies — is a noble one. Whether the script or the Studio Theatre managed to attain this lofty goal is a conclusion as fleeting as the moonlight.
About the Author
Lisa Troshinsky is the theater reviewer for The Washington Diplomat.