Harold Pinter’s rarely performed one-act play is classic Pinter: conflicted characters using dagger-sharp wit and caustic irony to compensate for deep-seated, unspoken doubts and fears. But Moonlight is more: its depiction of an irascible and unloved patriarch (Ted van Griethuysen) whose last hours on Earth are tormented by the failure of his two sons to answer their mother’s urgent call, is set against his memory of their dead daughter. Visible only to the audience, the aptly named Bridget (played by the even more aptly named Libby Woodbridge) inhabits the catwalk suspended above the rear of the stage, bridging the enormous psychological distances separating her family.
There is more conceptually and technically too. Moonlight combines the cinematic conventions of “cut” and split-screen with the theatrical cut-and-thrust of verbal jousting, enhanced by skillful lighting (Delaney Twining) that seamlessly shifts the audience’s attention left, right, and up from one episode to the next. Even more impressive, in this production directed by Studio’s founding artistic director Joy Zinoman, there are times when two and even three plot lines play out simultaneously, with little or no loss in the audience’s ability to follow what is said. Whether they can follow what is meant, is another matter: at the play’s conclusion several patrons exited the theatre frowning and shaking their heads. And they were not alone. “I don’t really know what this play is,” van Griethuysen told The Washington Post during the first week of rehearsal, “but it sure is interesting.”
That it is, and the superb cast plays to its strengths against Debra Booth’s spare set, whose angularity in lifeless gray, black and white suggests the emptiness of the father’s (who has the improbably jovial name of Andy) heart and spirit. Andy lies in a cot, its sheets an antiseptic hospital white, behind it a three-paneled folding screen that looks like it has seen better days. Echoing it at either side of the stage are floor-to-ceiling panels with dozens of glass panes, several of which are broken or missing. This frugal decor is offset by a densely filigreed black metal winding staircase that leads to an upper level inhabited by Bridget, the dead daughter who haunts the troubled marriage of her parents.
Bridget cannot sleep because there’s no moon — “It’s so dark” — and worries that she will disturb them if she comes downstairs to seek comfort: “They’ve done everything for me.” Meanwhile, Andy is petulantly mourning his impending death and spluttering at his wife Bel (Sybil Lines), trying to convince them both of his worth as the end nears: “I was a first-class civil servant. I don’t say I was loved. Didn’t want to be.” A true civil servant, he’s sure there’s a way around it. “There must be a loophole,” he cries. “But I can’t find it.” The two exchange nasty swipes (“I never swore at the office. Saved it for home”), she ranting about his adverse impact on people (“Most people were ready to vomit after 10 minutes in your company”) and his many infidelities, and he graphically assures her that he’s (literally) still up to it.
Their rants fall still and silent as if in freeze-frame, a pale light illuminating Bel’s handsome, angled face in chiaroscuro as their corner of the stage grows dark. Our attention shifts stage left, as their two sons Jake (Anatol Yusef) and Fred (Tom Story) rag each other about their adolescent escapades. (Particularly effective is Jake’s imitation of the elderly vicar, whose hood he ingeniously incarnates by locking his tank shirt over his head and arms.) Raw and raucous with a violent roughhousing that belies their years, the “boys” are even more divided when it comes to their father. Jake’s roar of affection and loyalty (“I love him!”) becomes a puzzled, aggrieved demand as to why his father has always been the subject of scorn. Fred, whose fears would seem to stem from his father’s meanness, cannot be induced even to go out for a walk, however physical his brother’s insistence. “Bridget would understand me,” he weeps. “Bridget always understood me.” His brother responds not with the mockery we expect, but with empathy: “Bridget always understood me too.”
Indeed, Bridget is the one person on whom they all are in agreement. The platform allows us to see her as they do, enabling some wonderful directorial moments. At one point, suddenly feeling hale and hearty, Andy leaps out of bed, denouncing the world with relish as he pours himself a glass of whiskey. From above, Bridget approaches the edge of the platform, reaching wordlessly not down to him, but out to us. From below — in one of Van Griethuysen’s best moments — almost as if in response, his choked voice calling out to her in wonderment, Andy extends his arms, the ogre briefly becoming poet, perhaps influenced by the spirit of his daughter, who speaks in cryptic poetry. I am hidden, but I am free, she whispers. I am seen only by the eyes of the leaves. No one can hurt me.
The platform also serves as a place where living characters can comment on the events below, as if in filmic voice-over. It is here that we meet two longtime friends of Andy and Bel, the seemingly working-class Ralph (James Slaughter), who will surprise us with the assertion that his parents woke him up to poetry and art, and his wife, the smiling, chattery Maria (Catherine Flye), who wants to be a physical therapist and insists on giving Andy a massage. Vigorous fingers purposefully digging into his neck she cheerily assures him, all brilliant, toothy smile, that he’s not a bad man, but “what we used to call a loud man. You can’t help it.” Both pooh-pooh his insistence that he is dying — “You’ll be waltzing away in no time,” trills Maria — then hurriedly exit, their faces betraying their thoughts.
van Griethuysen’s own uncertainty may have given him insight into Andy’s unexplained anger; still, he doesn’t seem completely comfortable in Andy’s skin. As this is a particularly tricky character to inhabit, the comfort will come (or perhaps not: his ambivalence may well be intentional). Sybil Lines seizes the prickly, earthy yet very womanly character of Bel, almost as if she were channeling someone she knew, while Yusef is a vibrant, athletic, in-your-face Jake and Story a sensitive, tentative Fred who wants to understand the madness around him. Slaughter and Flye’s Ralph and Maria precariously but hilariously approach the style of British music hall players, and Wood’s almost ethereal, childlike sweetness is offset by a gravity beyond her years. The moonlight she seeks is gone; but then, to see a play, her parents told her, you have to wait for the moon to go down.