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A CurtainUp Review
Celebration & The Room
a Pinter Double Bill
People have been scratching their heads and wondering what they've just seen since Harold Pinter's first play, The Room, was staged in London in 1957. Half a decade later, with Pinter too ill to personally accept a prize rarely given to a playwright, the Nobel, the head scratching hasn't stopped.
The Room is as ominously dark and disturbing and resistant to easy explanations as ever. A drab one room Londan flat seems to be a comfort zone for Rose until a series of stomach churning knocks on the door bring the threatening outside world inside and lead to a sudden and inexplicable act of violence. There's a lot of mundane chatter but no communication between Rose and her landlord, a couple of potential neighbors and blind stranger who apparently isn't a stranger.
Celebration (1999), Pinter's most recent play, comprises the second half of the Atlantic Theater's double bill. It takes place in quite a different sort of room -- an elite restaurant where a Pinter-like Separate Tables setup finds two nouveau rich couples celebrating a wedding anniversary at one and a more proper banker and his wife, dining at the other. Their nonstop table talk, often at cross purposes and regularly interrupted by a waiter given to extravagant name dropping, may make you wonder what happened to the man whose dark, ambiguous, pause heavy plays have added the term Pinteresque to our cultural lexicon. Could this be his way of giving his fans and detractors something hilariously funny and fun to watch to remember him by? No way.
This pairing of the ominously dark first play with the less typical last brilliantly connects the first and final chapter of Pinter's oeuvre. Celebration is not as unfathomable and threatening as The Room, but it doesn't have any more plot and its characters don't communicate much more clearly. Thus it's easy to see that even when he's in a marital comedy mode, Pinter has not metamorphosed into a writer of straightforward, well-made plays; neither has he abandoned his deeper concerns. Celebration just happens to be so stylishly polished, that you may not fully recognize its darker underside until after you've stopped laughing. With the Atlantic production's official opening coinciding with published reprints of the angry denunciation of US foreign policy that took up a large chunk of the acceptance speech delivered by the ailing Pinter to the Nobel Prize committee via video tape, it's clear that Pinter is still Pinter -- a man of uncompromising political passions even as his own life is menaced by the Grim Reaper.
Lizzie Loveridge's thorough and excellent summation of the first time Room and Celebration were matched up in 2000, is just a click away (see links at end of this review); so are Les Gutman's astute follow-up comments when that same production, also directed by the playwright, crossed the ocean as part of Lincoln Center's Pinter festival are both just a click away. I'll therefore limit myself here to plot and character details as they pertain to the Atlantic Theater staging.
To start with this all-American cast give no cause for quibbling that the British playwright needs British actors. Mary Beth Peil gives a terrific performance, especially during the first quarter hour which requires her to chatter endless and making a big to do over serving a meal to her her unresponsive husband Bert (Thomas J. Ryan), even adding salt and pepper to his eggs. I suspect Mr. Pepe encouraged her to play up the humorous aspect of Rose's fussing to emphasize the connection with the full-throttled humor of the play that follows. This detracts a bit from the menace overhanging this piece, but not fatally so. Peter Maloney brings the inanity spouting landlord Mr. Kidd to quirky life.
Three of the key players in The Room, migrate without a missed beat into totally different roles in Celebration: Ryan from almost mute husband to a dapper and somewhat shady entrepreneur; Kate Blumberg from a mousy apartment hunter to the sexy former secretary now married married to a banker and David Pittu, from her nondescript husband to the over-the-top namedropping waiter. Blumberg and Pittu not only move easily from play to play, but give standout performances in the more audience pleasing Celebration. The whole cast lands the biting dialogue with impeccable timing, each letting us glimpse the undefined unhappiness beneath the crude exteriors -- that applies to the maitress d'hotel (Christa Scott-Reed making the most of a minor role) and to Pittu's over-the-top waiter whose forlorn final image is a clue to what is probably Pinter's more serious purpose: a sort of last supper at which the old world of the waiter's amazingly well-connected grandfather has been unseated by the new order represented by the gangster-ish brothers Lambert (the excellent Patrick Breen) and Matt (Ryan) and their crass wives (well played by Betsy Aidem and Carolyn McCormick).
Set designer Walt Spangler has helped director Neil Pepe give the production a strong sense of unity by having each set begin as a black triangle, with a shade lifted to reveal the cramped all-in-one room of the first play and the elegant modernity of the second. Ilona Somogyi's costumes are appropriately drab for Rose and her various visitors and amusingly color coordinated in shades of maroon and black for the celebrating couples.
Thanks to Mr. Pepe's clear direction and the superior performances, this is a Pinter evening as palatable and entertaining as you're likely to have ever experienced. To borrow from one of the titles, this production is indeed a cause for celebration.
Room and Celebration in London
Room & Celebration at Lincoln Center's Pinter Festival
Our Harold Pinter Backgrounder
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