When Harold Pinter writes a play about a dying old man, we’re all ears. His ruminations about imminent mortality, after all, might have an autobiographical, premonitory ring. So it is with Moonlight — which, although written in 1993, reveals glimpses into Pinter’s thoughts about the Big Sleep. This play is making a rare Los Angeles appearance at the Lost Studio, and it’s fairly evident why it isn’t performed often. A slender 70 minutes, the one-act offers each of its seven actors some choice moments, but the déjà vu echoes of its badinage leave us little new understanding of the Nobel laureate. At times, the dialogue seems a little self-referential, if not self-parodic — a knowing jerk of the head back toward the previous incarnations of Moonlight’s characters who made Pinter the greatest living English-language playwright.
Andy (Mitchell Ryan) lies in bed as his wife, Bel (Cinda Jackson), sits nearby in a stoic vigil.
“Why am I dying, anyway?” Andy wonders. “I’ve never harmed a soul.”
Actually, much of the rest of the evening is spent learning how Andy hurt Bel by having an affair with her best friend, Maria — and listening to Andy rub it in. (The two women seem to have had a liaison together, however, so maybe there’s a cheaters’ equilibrium at work in the world.) It’s never clear why Andy and Bel’s two sons, Jake and Fred (Russell Milton and Dan Cowan), resist their parents’ pleas to return home to their father’s deathbed. (This wouldn’t be a Pinter play if it were explained.) Perhaps it’s because of Andy’s cheerful misanthropy, or because of his even crueler habit of eulogizing himself in the presence of others. On this last count, Andy is at no loss for words to recall a sterling career as a government desk jockey.
“Nobody ever uncovered the slightest hint of negligence or misdemeanor,” he announces. “I was a first-class civil servant. I was admired and respected.”
The line sounds like many others from Pinter’s oeuvre, especially The Homecoming, in which men of one London family compete to top one another.
“They won’t have anyone else,” Sam, the elderly driver in The Homecoming, boasts of his passengers. “They only ask for me. They say I’m the best chauffeur in the firm.”
Then there’s Sam’s brother, Max, recalling his fame as a horse expert: “I was the one they used to call for. Max, they’d say, there’s a horse here, he’s highly strung, you’re the only man on the course who can calm him.”
Earlier on in Moonlight, we may have recognized another line, when Andy tells Bel her efforts to locate their sons are “enough to make the cat laugh,” reminding us of when Ben in The Dumb Waiter uses the same memorable expression. Before long, even the props seem to have had past lives.
On the other side of scenic designer Christopher Kuhl’s stage lies Fred’s trash-strewn bedroom, where the younger son lies on a foldout mattress during a visit from his brother. For most of the play, the two assume self-assigned roles in make-believe situations, while bantering in a nearly nonsensical patois. When Bel finally reaches them by phone, they pretend to be employees of a Chinese laundry.
The story has three more onstage characters (by Pinter standards, this is an overpopulated play): Andy’s former lover, Maria (Kathryn Harrold); her husband, Ralph (Paul Jenkins), who was an old acquaintance of Andy’s; and Bridget (Eliza Dean). The first two pop up occasionally for comic relief or to evoke past memories. Bridget, however, is a spectral figure — Andy and Bel’s apparently departed daughter. Pinter’s stage directions call for Bridget to always appear on the set’s purgatorial “third area,” which Kuhl places between the bedrooms and marks with a skeletal tree, possibly transplanted from Waiting for Godot.
That arboreal reference to Samuel Beckett may have been unintentional but not inappropriate. Pinter has always been acknowledged as the literary stepson of Beckett and appeared on the London stage this past October in Krapp’s Last Tape, a solo performance that The Guardian’s Michael Billington found harshly unsentimental.
It’s bitterly ironic that, in his winter years, Pinter is playing Krapp, and that the 76-year-old playwright, stricken in 2001 with esophageal cancer, might end his days exiled to the silence that provides the great undertow in his and Beckett’s works. The Lost Studio’s Moonlight, directed by John Pleshette, seems to reach for this connection — but again, it’s not certain how intentionally. While Pinter’s script describes Andy as “a man in his 50s,” actor Ryan is clearly older than Jackson’s Bel, and in fact is a couple of years older than Pinter.
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These differences are crucial, for the Andy in the script can’t be dying of old age or natural causes — something is killing him, whether it be cancer, guilt or bad behavior. Ryan’s patriarch, however, may very well be in the same boat as Krapp or Pinter. He gives a garrulous and lively performance, bouncing off Jackson’s dour wife-mother, a contrast that defines this show. Pleshette’s production is whimsical where Pinter’s script is melancholy, comical instead of brutal.
Part of its problem lies both in the character of the ghostly Bridget and in Eliza Dean’s portrayal of her. Pinter turns Bridget loose onstage without much hint of her purpose. As a bearer of the playwright’s poetry, Bridget exhales the kind of ache for life that was so wistfully expressed by Kate and Anna in Old Times, Pinter’s three-character play in which a couple are visited by the wife’s long-estranged roommate. Bridget may also be there to deliver the haunted tone that the voluble Andy cannot. Dean’s presence, however, is light rather than ethereal, and her vocal phrasing doesn’t carry the weight it should.
At one point in time, Harold Pinter was a young playwright writing about old men — men who were at the end of their lives and looking back not in anger but with malice and bewilderment. Watching Moonlight, we’re not quite sure what conclusion Pinter has come to after his explorations in the theater. Perhaps it is, as Jake and Fred say, that death is the price of love. Or maybe it is as ambiguous as the illuminated horizon that forms this production’s backdrop — something that might be sunrise, or might be sunset.
MOONLIGHT | By HAROLD PINTER | At LOST STUDIO, 130 S. La Brea Ave., L.A. | Through April 1 | (323) 871-5830