Peter Marks Theater Review: Studio Theatre's Dreary 'Moonlight'

Ted van Griethuysen plays Andy in the Studio Theatre's production of
Ted van Griethuysen plays Andy in the Studio Theatre's production of "Moonlight." (By Katherine Frey -- The Washington Post)
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By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 17, 2009

Andy, the dying patriarch of Harold Pinter's "Moonlight," is not going gentle into that good night. Propped up in bed, he spends his final days not in reverie or in contemplation, but in a toxic standoff with his long-suffering wife, Bel, who sits by his side, fending off his needling reminders of both of their past transgressions.

As played by Ted van Griethuysen and Sybil Lines in Studio Theatre's gray production, Andy and Bel are wearily running out the string on a failed marriage, a long partnership that has absorbed its share of disappointment and loss. It has also completely alienated their two grown sons, the wayward Jake (Anatol Yusef) and Fred (Tom Story), who retreat to Fred's shabby bedroom somewhere, holding the world at arm's length with endless, aggressively competitive wordplay.

Family life comes down to dramas that seem ordinary from the outside, but to the participants feel as tumultuous as volcanic eruptions. In "Moonlight," Pinter's strange elliptical language of the everyday is pitched as the portrait of a dying man and his soul-sick clan, which in the shadow of death can do nothing to bridge the chasms that have opened around them. Only the ghost of another family member, the dead daughter Bridget (Libby Woodbridge), seems to have the vision (or is it the hindsight?) to see past the deep wounds.

"Moonlight" was first performed in the early 1990s, fairly late in the career of the great dramatist, who could mine operatic degrees of tension in sidelong glances and halting speeches. (He died last Christmas.) At his best, in works such as "The Homecoming," Pinter's verbal music is disquieting, funny, exhilarating: He reminds an audience in bitingly intimate exchanges of the enduring mysteries that we pose for one another.

This monotone play, though, is a valley of histrionic posturing; it comes across as a goodly amount of self-conscious blather (there are times when Pinter can sound like nothing so much as a parody of himself). And director Joy Zinoman's staging cannot avoid the consequences. While her guidance of Van Griethuysen and some others in the cast reminds you of the accomplished level at which this director and these actors can execute, you're less aware here of artifice than of rampaging artificiality.

Some of Pinter's dialogue is crisply delivered; Catherine Flye and James Slaughter, in particular, provide sharp accounts of Maria and Ralph, who may or may not have been the real loves of Andy's and Bel's lives. Still, you're cognizant much of the time of thoughts and words that sound as if they're simply being recited, in sometimes plummy English accents.

Debra Booth's skeletal two-tiered set for Studio's downstairs Metheny space is of a piece with the play's sense of decline. It also adds to the generally dreary atmosphere.

Only once, in a telephone call the desperate Bel places to her elusive sons, is there a moment when "Moonlight" makes a leap to more incisively Pinteresque dramatics. Maybe an ephemeral connection is all these characters can muster. It's sure not enough of one for the rest of us.

Moonlight by Harold Pinter. Directed by Joy Zinoman. Set, Debra Booth; lighting, Michael Philippi; costumes, Helen Q. Huang; sound, Gil Thompson; original music, Michael Gallant. About 1 hour 10 minutes. Through Oct. 18 at Studio Theatre, 1501 14th St. NW. Visit or call 202-332-3300.

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