Celebration and The Room
nytheatre.com review by George Hunka
December 7, 2005
I wish I could say that the Atlantic Theater Company production of Celebration and The Room, two one-act plays by Harold Pinter, is a timely, well-considered salute to the talent of one of the 20th century’s most influential playwrights. Between them, the two plays span nearly a half-century of dramatic work: The Room is Pinter’s first play, written in 1957, and Celebration his most recent, written in 2000, and though they both are characteristic of the innovations that Pinter brought to modern drama, they’re far from masterpieces. They do, however, deserve better treatment than they get in this production, which manages to hit nearly all the wrong notes.
Perhaps the lesser served by director Neil Pepe and the American cast is The Room, Pinter’s 1957 mystery play, and first on the bill here. It is, admittedly, a slight piece: a woman waiting for the return of her husband from work is visited by a variety of mysterious strangers and finally by a most mysterious black man who claims to have a message for her. She waits in a small, grubby apartment, rendered here in an extravagantly dressed set, severely defined by unforgiving right angles, by Walt Spangler.
And here’s the first problem with the production. Despite its realist trappings, Pinter’s play partakes far more of the absurdism of Ionesco; the text is a stylization of reality, not a mirror image of it. Setting it in a naturalistic space as Spangler and Pepe do here (there’s a working hot-plate and real boiling water, and every inch of the set is intimately realized, from the vintage radio on a shelf above the coat rack to the timeworn kitchen utensils above the sink) robs the play of much of its bizarre humor and mystery.
In contrast to the realism of the setting, the performances themselves seem to be beamed in from some other planet with a much higher gravity than our own. Every movement is slow and deliberate, each of Pinter’s notorious pauses and silences taken for what they’re worth, extended perhaps twice as long than is effective. From the moment the curtain rises, Mary Beth Peil plays the woman as victimized by her husband, by her visitors, by the room itself, which doesn’t really give her character much development through the length of the piece, but Peter Maloney as her landlord matches her for lack of subtlety: loud and distracted as the character is (he’s played here as somewhat deaf, not a bad choice in itself), Maloney plays him in a single, loud tone through the entire play.
The evening improves considerably with Celebration, a play which Pepe seems to find much more congenial, and in contrast to The Room, is fast-paced and funny. Three couples are engaged in various celebrations at a swanky, expensive restaurant: the first couple is there to celebrate their wedding anniversary, the second to share in the first celebration, the third to celebrate the success of a job interview. As the evening goes on, the couples become increasingly hostile to themselves and each other; the deteriorating proceedings are presided over by the unctuous man and woman who run the restaurant and an uncomfortable waiter (in a memorable, nervous, cringing performance from David Pittu), who interrupts the celebrations with long, hysterically funny memories of his own grandfather, who, according to the waiter, was a familiar of everyone significant in 20th century history, from Winston Churchill to the Three Stooges.
Ultimately, Celebration is a bitter, cynical portrait of a decadent Western civilization that has far too much influence in the world (two of the men, little more than thugs at first, turn out to be “peaceful strategy consultants” who eventually form an alliance with the third man, a banker), and Pepe stages this vicious political satire with considerable relish. Even here, though, Pepe tends to overstate the obvious (there’s so little “obvious” in Pinter's plays): the women are just this side of whorish, the men not far from the supporting cast of The Sopranos. But the speed and the wit with which much of the play flies by tend to compensate for the production’s faults.
The performers themselves are hobbled by their British accents, far too broad to be believable in a realistic sense and far too unnecessary in a linguistic sense. As we’ve grown used to Shakespeare, Wilde, and Shaw in the mouths of American actors with an American tone, little would be lost in rendering these plays similarly; and, in an American production, much might be gained, since the accents here tend to distract from the words themselves.
While Pinter’s masterpieces fall between these two bookends of his career, these plays are a notable reminder of what he’s contributed to modern drama. In this case, they also demonstrate the challenge to a directorial vision too crippled by naturalism to catch the poetry underneath.