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Last Planet Theater had just opened Harold Pinter's latest play, Moonlight, in a little space on top of Potrero Hill -- with the near-full moon looking especially clear -- when the playwright himself turned 70. To superstitious people this might have been a sign. A legendary playwright, a birthday, a local premiere, and a cooperating heavenly body: Everything all lined up. What could go wrong? Well, nothing much did go wrong. As far as I could see the cast did what they'd been coached to do in the previous few weeks. There were no flubbed lines. One actor was excellent. Some pacing was off, which matters in a Pinter play, but it wasn't fatal.
So where was the problem? I think what went wrong started years ago, on the legendary playwright's desk. Moonlight is a stillborn script.
The play shows a Beckettian married couple, Andy and Bel, and two interchangeable sons, Jake and Fred, who talk nonsense and pretend to be carefree as their father dies. Jake and Fred seem to be half-brothers. Wandering in the cold spaces between their apartment and their father's bed is a ghostly younger sister named Bridget, who talks eloquently about moonlight. There's also a funny married couple, Ralph and Maria, who provide obnoxious dinnertime chatter. The play should move with an undertow of lyrical sadness through cruel and ridiculous scenes of English life, and on paper it almost does; but in the live production something, as usual in the Pinter I've seen, is missing.
His plays are famous riddles, and it doesn't help that John Wilkins has directed Moonlight as if the audience already knew all the jokes. He's dressed Andy in a ghoulish costume with clawlike fingernails, cadaverous makeup, and one pointed ear. Andy, admittedly, is an unpleasant old man and difficult for his sons to love, but the costume actually obscures this side of his character. It adds another layer of mystery. One big question in Moonlight is: Why does Andy use so many clichés? What's he hiding? But Matt Leshinskie, as Andy, not only looks like a character from The Twilight Zone but also yells his platitudes with an overwrought actorly passion, instead of a naturalistically absent, automatic, Pinter-esque drone. So the audience sits there and thinks: "What's he yelling about? And what planet is he from?"
Extra stage business with Jake and Fred also distracts from the dialogue. They wrestle, swing golf clubs, play racquetball, and walk in parade-steps as soldiers while delivering rapid-fire banter like:
Jake: [Andy]'d run out of pesetas in a pretty spectacular fashion.
Fred: He had, only a few nights before, dropped a packet on the pier at Bognor Regis.
Jake: Fishing for tiddlers.
Fred: His casino life had long been a lost horizon.
Jake: The silver pail was empty.
Fred: As was the gold.
The dialogue is obscure enough without the wacky interpretive costumes, and it might yield light if the director just left it alone and concentrated on pacing.
The basic mysteries in Moonlight are how the children are related, what happened to Bridget (who may be dead), and why everyone seems estranged from Andy. Andy once had an affair with Maria, the dinner guest, which accounts for a lot of the tension and one or two of the kids. His wife Bel may also have screwed around with Ralph. And Maria. But these secrets, instead of rising goopily to the surface like oil and giving off some odor of grief, hide under the extra layer of riddles laid on by this production. Pinter's style gets obscured -- and style is all he has.
Sarah Neal, as the long-suffering wife Bel, maintains a perfect, half-cheerful manner as she fusses over Andy in bed: Instead of reaching for a British accent she finds a comfortable half-American voice that makes her the most natural performer on the stage. Her short speech about Maria is beautiful. Tori Hinkle also does a nicely balanced job with Bridget's final moonlight speech. Megan Towle is a funny burst of energy as Maria, and Michael Leitch delivers the only humorous lines as Ralph, in a sometimes-overdone cockney accent. Everyone else overplays.
Maybe there's only one way to get through Pinter, as there is with Mamet. Maybe I've never seen him performed really well. But I suspect that even a perfect version of Moonlight, with well-tuned voices and no extra riddles, would lack a certain urgency. Pinter has tried for most of his career to seem as cold and chiseled as Beckett, and the better he gets at it the less I seem to care.
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